Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Feeling Confident with Cover Letters

Ever written a cover letter? In some ways, cover letters can be even more difficult to write than resumes. Like resumes, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what makes a good cover letter. There are, however, a few good rules that can you use to guide you as you write a cover letter.

Let’s start with the most basic of basics: salutations. When you apply for a job, especially if it’s at a larger company, you may not have a direct contact to address your cover letter to. Never fear, there are a few ways you can try to find a contact. Start by checking out the company’s website to see if they have an employee guide. If they do, you may be able to locate a hiring manager, etc. If not, try searching for employees of the potential employer on Linked In. If you can’t locate a name, don’t stress. It’s acceptable to address your letter to “the hiring manager” or “whom it may concern”. That said; definitely try to find a contact!

Now, let’s move onto format. A cover letter shouldn’t be very long- three paragraphs, each about five to six sentences long. Your first paragraph is your introduction, also known as the attention grabber. This paragraph should focus on demonstrating your enthusiasm and describing the position you are applying for. Make sure to address whether you saw this listing on an employment database (like CSO) or if someone (indicate who!) referred you to this listing. Your introduction paragraph should be short and sweet, so be concise.

The next paragraph is your sales pitch. This should be the longest of your paragraphs. This is where you’ll describe your skills, education, and experience that make you a good candidate for the position. Be sure to highlight any skills or experiences that pertain to the job you are applying for. This is also where you can show your knowledge of the company, and how you can meet their needs. Remember, your cover letter should focus on how your skills will benefit them and not the other way around.

The final paragraph is a request for action. Ask for an interview or meeting to discuss your skills and how they might be beneficial to the employer. You can also use this paragraph to offer more information about yourself, such a samples of work or more details about your experience. Provide your telephone number (just one!) and email address with the best way and times to contact you. Include a follow up sentence- i.e., “I will follow-up with you in two weeks” etc. Most importantly, don’t forget to thank the employer for their time and consideration.

Now that we know how to format a cover letter, let’s talk more about what goes into writing a good cover letter. If this is a job that you really care about, then your cover letter should take you more than fifteen minutes. Writing a good cover letter means really thinking through what skills and experiences you have and how those can benefit a potential employer. It means planning and research. And just what sort of research should you do? The goal of research is to give you a feel for what type of company you are applying for- what are their goals, what types of projects do they have in the works, what types of community outreach do they do? This will help you see where your skills and experiences overlap with the employer. In other words, research will help you in your sales pitch. The more you know about the company, the easier it will be for you to write a cover letter an employer will want to read.

I briefly mentioned earlier that your cover letter should be focused on meeting the employer’s needs. Let’s discuss that a little further. When you apply for a job you are applying to fill an employer’s needs. They have a need and you can meet that need, so make sure that comes across in your letter. While you’re writing your cover letter it may be helpful to ask yourself: “why am I interested in this company?”, “why am I interested in this position?” and “why am I good fit for this position?”. These questions can guide you while writing.

When it comes to writing cover letters it’s important to put time and effort into it. If you send out a mass cover letter or one that you wrote in ten minutes, the employer will know it. And will most likely put your resume on the bottom of the pile or in the trash. So start early and recruit help. Attached to this blog you’ll find a sample job description and cover letter to guide you. If you’re having a hard time writing the letter or want feedback, come in for a quick walk-in appointment (M-Th, 1:30 to 4) or email your cover letter to pcahelp@colorado.edu. Cover letters are just as important as resumes, so put in the time and effort that they deserve.