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What Should Your Cover Letter Contain?

By Martin Yate

There are really two steps in the creation of a polished cover letter.

The first happens now. You want to make sure that all the things that should be included are, and that all the things that shouldn't, aren't.

On the fence about sending a cover letter? Read Are Cover Letters a Waste of Time?

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Essential Components of a Successful Cover Letter

The final proofing is done before sending.

Warning: It is easy, in the heat of the creative moment, to miss crucial components, or to mistakenly include facts that give the wrong emphasis.

Check all your letters against these considerations:

1. Contact Information

Contact information is required by standard business letter format. In a job search, proceed carefully:

  • You need your contact information, name, address, zip code, personal telephone number, and e-mail address at the top of the page.

    If in rare instances you have to run to second page (and avoid this at all costs) remember to include your name, telephone number and email address on that page, too.
  • Your current business number and email address is omitted unless it is absolutely necessary and safe to include it.

    This will only be the case if your employer understands that you are leaving and you have permission to use company time and equipment for your search.

    Read Stealth Job Search if you, like the vast majority of job seekers, don't have your employer's approval.

If your letter is more than one page long, and is going by traditional mail, each page should be numbered "page 1 of 2," etc., and the pages are stapled together. Remember the accepted way of stapling business communications: one staple in the top left-hand corner.

2. Clear Objective

Without an purpose that is clear to the recipient, your cover letter will be useless and your resume likely ignored. Focus on communicating the reason you are sending your resume in a way that appeals to the employer's interests:

  • Does your letter state why you are writing?
  • Is your letter tied to the target company?
  • Is it focused on a target job, such as skills that apply from the ad or agenda items addressed during a conversation?
  • Does it include reference to desirable professional behaviors?
  • Is your most relevant and qualifying experience prioritized to lend strength to your letter?
  • Have you avoided wasting more space than required with employer names and addresses?
  • Have you omitted any reference to reasons for leaving a particular job?

    Reasons for change might be important at the interview, but they are not relevant at this point. Use this precious space to sell, not to justify.
  • Unless they have been specifically requested, have you removed all references to past, current, or desired salaries?
  • Have you removed reference to your date of availability? If you aren’t available at their convenience, why are you wasting their time?
  • Do you mention your highest educational attainment if it is relevant, and do you mention your major if it adds credence to the message?
  • Have you avoided listing irrelevant responsibilities or job titles?
  • Have you given examples of your contributions, your achievements, and the problems you have successfully solved during your career?
  • Have you avoided poor focus by eliminating all extraneous information?
  • Is the letter long enough to whet the reader's appetite for more details, yet short enough not to satisfy that hunger?
  • Have you let the obvious slip in, like heading your letter "Letter of Application" in big bold letters? If so, cut it out.

Focus on the benefit to the employer of hiring you. Don't include how you will benefit by working for them.

3. Clean Style

The cover letter is a primary example of the quality of your work, so take great care with how you communicate to show what a great communicator you are:

  • Substitute short words for long words, and one word where previously there were two.
  • Keep your average sentence to less than twenty-five words. Break longer sentences into two, if they cannot be shortened.

    * At the same time try to vary the length of sentences.

  • Keep every paragraph under five lines, with most paragraphs shorter, this leads to more white space on the page and makes your message more accessible to the reader.
  • Make sure your sentences begin with or contain, wherever possible, powerful action verbs and phrases describing your accomplishments.

In a digital and social media world, how well you craft your written communications is increasingly important.

Bottom Line

Yes, a well-written cover letter will take you time. Some people will tell you that they don't matter (Are Cover Letters a Waste of Time?). Since you won't usually know in advance who requires them and who ignores them, take the time to make it clear why you are sending your resume, just in case. And, at the same time, show your attention to detail and the high quality of your communications.

More About Cover Letters


About the author...

Successful careers don't happen by accident. Professional resume writing expert Martin Yate CPC is a New York Times best-seller and the author of 17 Knock Em Dead career management books. As Dun & Bradstreet says, "He's about the best in the business." For FREE resume-building advice and to view Martin's resume samples, visit the Knock Em Dead website. Join Martin on Twitter at @KnockEmDead and also on Google+.



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