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Copy Conscious: The ins and outs of Writing a Good Cover Letter

by Carolyn Heinze, Contributing Editor

Article Sponsored by: URS

It’s one thing to put together a solid resume; it’s another thing to present it. As an introduction to your resume, a cover letter must be informative yet concise, snappy, and, in most cases, not too over-the-top, and detailed without being dense. Like that initial handshake between business professionals, the cover letter provides job candidates with the opportunity to make a first impression that lasts.

Lisa Parker, a professional resume writer in Richmond Hill, Ga., underlines that cover letters should inspire employers to move on to reading the job candidate’s resume. “The first time you meet someone, you don’t just walk up to them, shake hands and tell them your life story,” she said. “You introduce yourself, make a first impression and then move on to discuss the details.” If you don’t provoke interest straight off, she says, they won’t look any further than the cover letter.

Wendy S. Enelow, a Coleman Falls, Va.-based trainer and executive career consultant and author of a number of books including “Cover Letter Magic” (Jist Publishing, with Louise Kursmark), notes that the thing about cover letters is that, when it comes to writing them, there are no rules. However, a number of tools exists that candidates can put to use to make their letters stand out.

While there are many differing opinions on how cover letters should be formatted and what they should or should not contain, candidates should include a few basics, starting with their contact information. Candidates should address their correspondence to the company and, if at all possible, include the hiring authority’s name. “If possible, it should be addressed to a real person,” Enelow said, “rather than just ‘Madam/Sir.’” It’s also wise to include the title of the position in which you’re interested and the job number if applicable.

While the ultimate purpose behind cover letters is to provide a snapshot of the job candidate, thus introducing the reader to the resume, it shouldn’t just act as a listing of qualifications or accomplishments. Employers want to know how and what you will contribute to their organization. One of the ways to illustrate this is by citing a specific example of how you solved a problem at your previous employer’s, or through the inclusion of a quote or testimonial from a supervisor for whom you had worked in the past.

Aside from rare exceptions, cover letters are one page long and, depending on the writer, anywhere from three to five paragraphs. Parker favors three: an introduction paragraph, another offering an overview of the candidate’s key credentials, accomplishments and the value that they will bring to the organization, and a closing paragraph. “You don’t want to overdo it, and you don’t want to bore the reader with details before they ever get to your resume,”she said.

While it’s become increasingly rare for candidates to apply for positions via snail-mail, Parker advises following up on e-mail correspondence with a hard copy. “It gives you an opportunity to provide a presentation that makes an impact through the paper you use, the envelope, the feel, the texture and the visual appeal versus something that you attach to an e-mail message,” she explained. “Plus, it provides an opportunity to be noticed once more.” E-mail correspondence, on the other hand, should be brief and to-the-point, although Parker does emphasize the importance of including all contact information in the body of the message. “Many people are going to print the e-mail to read at a later time. You should always include your e-mail address and your phone number in your e-mail so that if they don’t happen to be in front of the computer, they can respond to you quickly.”

Aesthetically, it’s better if both the cover letter and the resume are formatted similarly, with the same font and overall appearance. “Everything should be consistent,” Parker said. “Your header should match the resume, because it’s visually appealing, and administratively, it creates the whole package.”

One of the biggest mistakes that candidates make is, perhaps, the most obvious one: failure to proofread effectively… or to read what they’ve written at all. As we all know, it’s difficult to catch our own mistakes, so it’s a good idea to have someone else look your work over once you’re done. After all, typos, spelling and grammatical errors or a flaw in formatting may make the difference between landing an interview or not. When it comes to your contact information, it’s also extremely important to check, re-check and check again: if a potential employer can’t get in touch with you, it’s pretty hard for them to call you in for an interview.

Ultimately, employers use these documents as a way of screening how well you are able to express yourself in writing, Parker emphasizes. “You can speak one way, but when you write, it has to portray professionalism and it must also speak for your grasp of language and your ability to portray yourself in correspondence.”

Carolyn Heinze ( is a freelance writer/editor.


Return to January/February 2010 Issue