Covering Cover Letters

Does your resume need a cover letter? If you insist, what traits make for an effective, attention-getting one?

Dear Reader,

The following is an article on cover letters containing advice and a sample of what a good cover letter should contain. It addresses issues as when a cover letter is appropriate, what is appropriate content and what is important to consider when composing a cover letter. I hope the reader will find it interesting as I toiled long and hard on it, putting years of experience to work.

T.M. Kerrigan

Dear Reader,

     Above is an example of a terrible cover letter. It tells you nothing you won't find out by reading my article, distracts from my article and essentially wastes the time you've allotted to read this piece. The first question to ask when sending a cover letter should be, "Is it necessary?"
     Unless specifically requested by a posting, don't send a cover letter, only an identifier for the job. Your reader's attention should be focussed on your résumé, which is what will get you a call for an interview. Your qualifications for a job should be apparent in your résumé, not your cover letter. If you need to add a paragraph to a cover letter to explain why you're applying for a particular job, I'd suggest recasting your résumé instead.
     If a prospective employer requests a cover letter, consider their motivation. They probably want to find out if you can write, so pay attention to spelling and grammar. They likely want to find out if you can write a business letter, so pay attention to format. They likely want to find out in advance that you want the specific job they're offering, so make your response specific to a person and to the job. Write a business letter to that person, don't simply attach a generic cover letter.
     That said, what follows is a generic cover letter form:


(double space or triple space)

Person's Name (If you don't have a name, it's worth the additional trouble of finding out the name.)
City, State Zip

(double space or triple space)

Dear Mr./Ms. Person's Name,
(double space)

Think Haiku. Short and powerful. The entire letter should be no more than six simple sentences. No one has ever been hired from his or her cover letter. Your reader will spend a total of 40 seconds looking at your résumé and cover letter. Where do you want your reader to spend those seconds?

Your first sentence might explain how your résumé and cover letter got to their desk and why they should pay attention: "Your president, Mr. Smith, suggested I send you my résumé regarding opportunities at XYZ Co." "Pursuant to our phone conversation, attached is my résumé."

If you have assets that aren't obvious by reading your résumé you might include them in a second paragraph: "In addition to my skills and experience, I live five minutes from your office." "XYZ Co. is an eco-friendly company which has been a personal crusade of mine." Remember that some of these assets may backfire. The company may be moving or changing policies, which would negate the previous examples. An avid golfer may not be welcome in the IS group of Golfballs International because putting on company time and pilferage are already troublesome issues.

If you are responding to a specific position with particular relevance to experience you have, a sentence can direct them to your résumé. "You'll note in addition to my technical skills, I also have an understanding of your industry due to my experience at XYZ Co." Use as a highlight or pointer only. If more exposition is required, redo your résumé.

Do not summarize your experience here. Do not fully explain it either. Let your reader know it's there. Remember that the only purpose of this page is to get them to read the résumé. The only purpose of the résumé is to get them to call you in for a face-to-face hire. Then you both can get details.

If you can write a cover letter that gets them to call you, you don't need to attach a résumé and it's not a cover letter, it's a letter.

If you have special conditions regarding interviews or want certain times to be interviewed, put them in your closing. Get your reader looking at their appointment book. "I will be in your city next Monday and Tuesday for interviews." "I will need two days notice for an interview."

Your last sentence should let the reader know if they don't respond, you will: "If I have not heard from you by Wednesday next (month, day,) I shall contact you to confirm your receipt of my résumé and get your response."
(double space)

(space to balance page)
Your Name (and if not using stationery)
City, State, Zip
Phone email
(double space)

Enc.: résumé, A. Generic

     I hope you will note this cover letter is in a standard business letter format. The language you use for your letter should be in your voice, however, not business-ese. I happen to use words like "pursuant" when I talk; if you don't, don't use language like that.
     Try reading your cover letter out loud—if you stumble on a sentence, rewrite it the way you'd say it. Talk to your reader as if they were in the room with you. That's the goal you're trying to achieve.
     Use a standard business letter format even when e-mailing a potential employer. When emailing or faxing your documents, you should include some opening or receiving information in your cover letter. "The attached is a WordPerfect 8.0 document. Should you have any trouble opening or receiving it, please contact A. Generic at 555-555-1234 or [email protected]"
     This last sentence should be included with any attachment you send and may be the only sentence you truly need. Providing contact information insures the employer can contact you if there's a problem, and it reasonably assures them you haven't sent them a virus masquerading as a résumé.
     Some companies request salary histories along with cover letters. I'd suggest ignoring such requests, and if pressed, ignoring such companies. A company asking for salary history or references before even seeing you is asking too much in my opinion.
     Giving out such information initially can eliminate you from consideration, and if it doesn't, it will almost certainly undermine your bargaining position later if the company makes you an offer. If you've changed jobs for the same salary three times, why would this company offer you more money to come to them? Similarly, a request for salary requirements is premature before you know anything about the job. Would you require the same amount for a 40-hour week as an 80-hour week? Are benefits, bonuses, time off, tuition assistance, and other perks so clearly defined in the company's posting to give you a complete understanding of compensation? If you feel this has to be addressed, include a line such as "I'd be happy to discuss my salary requirements with you in an interview, where I would have the opportunity to more fully understand the requirements of the job."
     I look forward to hear from you soon on this article. Please send my editor an e-mail at: [email protected] to let us both know what you think.


T.M. Kerrigan
MCSE, Consultant
Kerrigan & Company
I'm not giving you my address Or City, Or State or Zip Code
[email protected]

About the Author

T. M. Kerrigan, MCSE + Internet, has worked as a technical recruiter and owner of a recruiting firm in New York City.


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