9.3: Cover Letters

Learning Objectives

Target icon1. ENL1823H Course Learning Requirement 4: Represent skills, knowledge, and experience realistically for employment purposes.

iii. Prepare a targeted and persuasive cover letter and resume

Because the cover letter literally covers the résumé and is thus the first thing the hiring manager sees of you, it plays key role in convincing them to consider your application. Besides introducing the résumé and requesting an interview, the cover letter is a sales pitch explaining how you will benefit the company you’re applying to. In the communications test that is the hiring process, it also proves that you can put coherent, persuasive sentences and paragraphs together when writing formally on the employer’s behalf. The cover letter must be flawless because, like the résumé that follows it, even one writing error could be read as a sign of the poor quality of work to come and prompt the hiring manager to save time by shredding it immediately.

An important distinction in the content between the résumé and cover letter is that the former is focused on your past, the cover letter on your future with the company. Many job applicants wastefully use the cover letter to express in sentences what they listed in point-form in their résumé. To be persuasive, however, the cover letter must convince the employer that you will apply the skills and qualifications developed through previous work, education, and other experience to your future job. They want to see how you think you’ll help meet their business goals and fit the company culture. If you answer the “What’s in it for us if we hire you?” question that hiring managers direct towards any cover letter, you increase your chances of getting an interview.

Is a cover letter even necessary? In cases where you know that the employer thinks they’re just a waste of time, then you can obviously skip it. Sometimes job postings will helpfully clarify whether they want a cover letter or not. What if they don’t say either way, though? The safe bet is to write a cover letter as part of your targeted approach to the job application. It’ll show the hiring manager that you’ve made the extra effort to explain how well you suit the job and give them more information to make a well-informed decision about you. Adding a cover letter looks better than all the applicants who didn’t bother. We’ll see below how the various parts of the cover letter can certainly help sway the hiring manager toward adding you to the interview shortlist.

Cover Letter Topics

9.3.1: Cover Letter Format

Should you format the cover letter in the personal modified-block style or standard block style? As we saw in §7.1.1 above, these two styles differ first in how they present the sender’s address. The personal modified-block letter simply has the sender’s two address lines at the top but tabbed so that their left edges line up along the vertical centre of the page. At the bottom, the signature block’s left edge also lines up with the vertical middle of the page. The modified-block-style format is acceptable if you’re required to submit your cover letter as a separate file in electronic submissions.

Even better, however, would be if you did a block-style letter with a stylized letterhead much like companies have—only your name is the company—in the header and used it consistently across your cover letter and résumé. If you’ve put a personal letterhead in the header of your résumé (see §9.2.2.1 above) and can add your cover letter to your résumé file by making it the first page, then the letterhead appears automatically at the top. If so, then adding your address below the letterhead is unnecessary. From there, you would simply follow the format of a block-style letter (see §7.1 above). Keep it down to one page so you don’t exhaust the busy reader’s patience, unless of course you know for sure that they want more detail in a second page.

9.3.2: Cover Letter Message Parts

As a direct-approach message, the cover letter generally follows the AIDA pattern of persuasive message in its four paragraphs:

A for Attention States emphatically what job you want and that you qualify
I for Interest Summarizes how you will apply your skills and qualifications
D for Desire Explains why you’re interested in the company and job itself
A for Action Requests that the reader consider you for an interview

Let’s look in more detail at how to write each of these four cover letter paragraphs plus surrounding parts.

Cover Letter Message Parts

9.3.2.1: Opening Salutation

The most impressive cover letters address the hiring manager formally by name in the opening salutation (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 398). “Dear Ms. Connie Jenkins:” tells the employer right away, “Take me seriously because I’m a targeted résumé” compared to the droves of applications introduced by generic cover letters beginning with “To whom it may concern:” or, worse, with no introductory cover letter at all. If the job posting said whom to address your application to, doing this gives you an early lead in the competition because it shows that you can follow orders, which not everyone does.

If the job posting made no mention of who the hiring manager is, finding their name also shows that you’re resourceful and conscientious because you care about finding the right person to deal with—qualities employers love. You may have to dig for that information on the company website or by Google-searching for the company’s HR or recruiting personnel and confirming that you have the right people using LinkedIn page results. However, you can’t be sure that you have the right person this way, and naming the wrong person could backfire.

Perhaps the best strategy is just to call the company or even pay them a visit and ask to whom you can address your application. This is ideal because you can confirm the correct spelling and also ask for other employer preferences. Ask if a cover letter is necessary in the first place and what kind of résumé they prefer—reverse chronological, functional, or a combination. Doing this shows that you care about what the employer wants, which, by extension, suggests you’d do the same for the customers, managers, and co-workers you work for and with. It also gets your name on their radar. If the same person whom you talked to on the phone or met in person reads your application, you will have some valuable name recognition working for you.

If you discover instead that the company has hidden the hiring manager’s identity too well, however, it’s best to give up before getting too resourceful and looking like a hacker or stalker. Appreciate that many organizations prefer to keep the identity of the people responsible for hiring a mystery until the best job candidates meet them for the interview. This helps ensure an uninfluenced and unbiased hiring process. In such cases, “Dear Hiring Manager” is a perfectly acceptable opening salutation.

9.3.2.2: Opening Job Identification

If your cover letter responds to a job posting, its first paragraph should be a brief couple of sentences that do no more or less than the following:

1. State the official job title of the position you’re seeking, as well as the reference number if one was provided in the job posting. Get right to the point by saying emphatically, “I am applying with great enthusiasm for the position of . . .” or “Please accept this application submitted with keen interest for the position of . . . .” Don’t waste the reader’s time with redundant lead-ins such as “I’m Todd Harper and I’m applying for . . .”; they can see your name at the top and/or bottom of the page.

If the job posting included a reference number, include it in parentheses after the job title. Also include it in the bolded subject line above along with the job title (see §7.1.4 above). Employers use job reference numbers to direct applications to the correct competition, especially if the company is large enough to run several at once. If you give the reference number, you’ll show the reader that, in accommodating their bureaucratic needs, you are conscientious and considerate.

2. Say where you found out about the job in the first sentence after naming the job title. If you know someone in the company and they recommended that you apply, name-dropping works well here if they will give you a strong recommendation to the employer and their opinion matters. Even if you don’t have an “in” from networking, say where you found the job posting or if a recruiter recommended it. Again, this shows that you are considerate in providing the employer information they’re interested in. They will use this to determine where their job advertising money and efforts are being well directed. If most applicants say they found out about the job from a certain job search engine and not at all through another, then the employer will switch their focus to the popular job site and drop the other with the next competition (Guffey et al., 2016, pp. 398-399).

3. State that you’re qualified for the position by asking the hiring manager to read onward. Be courteous in this request. A concluding sentence such as Please consider the following application for details regarding how I meet the required qualifications for the position nicely introduces the following paragraphs and résumé.

If your cover letter introduces an unsolicited application—i.e., it’s a “cold call” prospecting for work rather than responding to a job posting—take a more indirect, persuasive approach than the direct one advised above. Start by asking if the employer is in need of someone who can do what you do, then detail the skills you have that will benefit the employer.

9.3.2.3: Skills and Qualifications Summary

Use your second paragraph to explain how you’ll apply the skills you’ve learned and practiced throughout your educational, work, and other experience to benefit the employer in the position you’re applying for. Getting right to the point with this in a solicited application (responding to a job posting) is vital because anything you include that doesn’t instantly convince the employer that you have what they’re looking for is going to sink your application quickly. Avoid the trap of simply repeating and stretching out the Skills and Qualifications Summary section of your résumé into full sentences.

Make the paragraph instead about how you’re going to benefit the employer, using those skills to help the company achieve its business goals, which requires knowing and saying what they are. This is why you were advised to research the company at the outset of the application process and note their products and/or services, clientele demographics, and mission/vision statement (see §9.1.3 above). Show that you know what they want and have the necessary skills to deliver exactly that. If you convince the employer that you bring a skill set to the table that will set you up for success in the position right away (with only minimal mandatory training), you’re a step closer to the interview. If you list skills that only partially mirror what the posting asks for (or, worse, not at all), however, you’ve moved your application a step closer to the shredder.

The biggest mistakes that job applicants make here is (1) simply summarizing their résumé with an repetitive I did this, I did that, I . . . , I . . . , I . . . structure and (2) saying how the job will benefit them (the applicant, not the employer) by advancing their career. What the reader takes away from this application-killing combination is that the candidate is a self-involved Millennial stereotype who might exploit the job for experience and then move on quickly to something better. That may be far from your true intentions, but that’s just what it looks like to the reader who hasn’t met you and has only your small writing sample to go on. Avoid “I” dominance by using activities and outcomes as the subjects of sentences rather than I (Guffey et al., 2016, p. 402). For example, saying “Working closely with clients to customize training programs that work best for them informed my customer-centred approach to fitness training” helps you escape the I-dominant phrasing of “I developed a customer-centred approach to fitness training by working closely with clients to customize their training programs.”

9.3.2.4: Employer Preference

Though many applicants meet the required baseline qualifications for the job, only those who look like they will be a good “fit” in the company or organization culture will be invited for an interview. The paragraph that follows the qualifications paragraph is crucial to convincing the employer that you’ll fit in nicely. To assure the employer you will be truly happy in that position, say what attracts you to it and to the company in general. Perhaps you have been a customer in the past and were really impressed by the product or service and the people you dealt with, and now you want to participate in the effort to make more satisfied customers like you’ve been. Saying that your priority is to make the company’s customers and stakeholders happy, perhaps by paraphrasing the mission or vision statement available on their website and making it your own, goes a long way toward convincing the employer that you’re their kind of people.

9.3.2.5: Closing Action Requests

End your letter’s message concisely with two or three sentences that do the following:

  1. Thank the reader for considering your application. Politely phrase this as a request to read on to the next page: I very much appreciate your considering me for this position. Please review the attached résumé for a more detailed explanation of how I meet or exceed the required qualifications.
  2. Request an interview. Since winning an interview spot for a chance to get a job offer is the entire goal of the application, make your intentions clear by stating your desire to talk in person. You can say that you look forward to meeting and discussing further your “fit” in the organization, since that’s exactly what they’ll be doing with the interview. Though some cover letter writing guides advise ending with confidence, saying something like you’ll be contacting them to arrange an interview or, worse, thanking them in advance for the job offer to come or asking when you can start the job will appear entitled in the worst way. Any statement that assumes certain victory looks like you’re saying that this opportunity is owed to you rather than earned. An important part of being courteous here at the letter’s closing is being humble.

When completing the letter’s standard formal parts in the signature block, strongly consider using an image of your handwritten signature by following the procedure explained in the left column of Table 7.1.10. Also, don’t forget the subject line with the job title (e.g.: “Re: Powerline Technician position, ref. no. OHA-532B-18”; see §7.1.4 on letter subject lines) above the opening salutation and enclosure notice (i.e., “Enclosure: Résumé”) on the very last line of the page.

9.3.3: Cover Letter Editing and Submission

As with the résumé, where even one error can potentially sabotage all your efforts, the cover letter must be perfect. Put in the extra effort making it convincing and absolutely flawless following Chapter 5’s advice on revising and proofreading. Enlist trusted others to review it also, ideally anyone you know in management positions.

Since most employers ask that you submit applications by email or by uploading them to a company website, following their instructions to the letter is essential. As discussed at length in §9.2.3.3, an error such as not naming your file exactly as the employer requests is enough to disqualify your application. If you’re emailing it, is a cover letter still necessary or can you introduce your résumé in the email message itself? Given that people generally don’t like long emails, even the few paragraphs that make up a cover letter can stretch a reader’s patience if emailed (recall the difference between letters and emails summarized in Table 2.3 and explored in more detail in §6.1 and §7.1 above). You also want the cover letter to prove that you can write formally. For these reasons, always write a cover letter for a job that you’re serious about and attach it along with your résumé, either as a separate file or together with your résumé according to employer preference, when emailing or uploading your application.

For more on cover letters, see the following resources:

Key Takeaways

key iconWrite a cover letter as part of your targeted approach to applying for job competitions you really want to win; use it to identify the job by name, introduce your résumé, explain how you’ll apply your skills in the job at hand, and request an interview.

Exercises

1. Write an unsolicited cover letter for your dream job. Take the indirect approach and be convincing in how you present your pitch.

2. Following up on the application-building exercise begun with Exercises 1-2 at the end of §9.1.4, write a solicited cover letter to introduce the targeted résumé you wrote for Exercise #2 at the end of §9.2.3.3.

References

Guffey, M., Loewy, D, & Almonte, R. (2016). Essentials of business communication (8th Can. ed.). Toronto: Nelson.

Olson, A., & Brizee, A. (2011, December 14). What is a cover letter? Purdue OWL. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/549/01/

wikiHow (2018, May). How to write a cover letter. Retrieved from https://www.wikihow.com/Write-a-Cover-Letter

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9.3: Cover Letters by Jordan Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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