- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

10 tips for writing a killer cover letter
by Janet Farley, Contributing Editor

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Article Sponsored by: American Military University

It’s the same old story in any job search. The resume, overflowing with impressive credentials, unique work experiences and solid abilities gets all the glory, leaving the overshadowed and oft misunderstood cover letter behind in a pile of ashes. No more! By employing the following ten tips, your cover letter will rise from the ashes, like the mythological phoenix, to become a more effective tool in your job search journey.

Tip #1: Understand its real purpose. Having taken advantage of the military transition assistance program, you understand that the real purpose of the resume is to land a face-to-face interview. The real purpose of the cover letter, however, is to get your resume read by an employer in the first place. It can be a powerful tool if you give it the attention it deserves.

Tip #2: Give it direction, literally. Address your cover letter to no one in particular and no one in particular will read it. Letters sent to “Dear Human Resources Manager” or “To Whom It May Concern” might as well read “Dear Black Hole in the Universe” or “Dear Recycle Bin.” Instead, address your cover to a real person whose name you spell correctly. If you don’t know a real person to send it to, then you need to do more networking. Pick up the telephone. E-mail someone. Connect one way or another, and give your cover letter genuine direction and your resume a fighting chance.

Tip #3: Get to the point. Clarity and brevity are beautiful things. If you are applying for a specific job, reference the job number or where you learned of the position. If you are sending your resume to someone for advice because someone else suggested you do so, name drop immediately to provide the reader a framework for understanding and limit your cover letter to one page.

Tip #4: Write conversationally. You will not be physically in the room with the employer as he or she reads your letter but write it as though you were. Don’t let it sound like the last 150 previous cover letters that have already been eliminated from consideration. Use your own voice and truly give the reader a hint of who you are and how you express yourself. Write in the first person (using I) and avoid using and abusing common cliches such as:

- I’ve taken the liberty of attaching my resume for your review.

- Thank you for your consideration.

- Enclosed you will find my resume.

- As you can see from the attached resume...

Tip #5: Target your content. Show the fit between what you have to offer and what the employer needs. If you’re not sure how to do this, highlight the keywords within the job announcement and use those exact words in your cover letter. Make the employer’s job easier and increase your chances of actually landing an interview at the same time.

Tip #6: Don’t repeat your resume word for word. Your cover letter and your resume shouldn’t read exactly the same. Think of your letter as the pre-game show to the main event. If you focus on showing the fit and using your voice (see Tip #5), then this will be easier.

Tip #7: Keep it original. You will write more than one cover letter in your job search. To save time, avoid stress and protect brain cells, you will be tempted to copy and paste your cover letters with each new opportunity. Just don’t do it. Sacrificing originality is a bad idea. To get the most out of your cover letters, make each one unique and relevant to its purpose.

Tip #8: Make each paragraph count. A one-page opportunity to shine means that every word you write has to count. Use the following guidelines to help you accomplish that mission:

In paragraph one: Explain why you are writing in the first place. Be direct and succinct. This is the place, as noted in Tip #3, to connect the dots for the employer.

In paragraph two: Show the exact fit between your skills and the job in question. Don’t mince your words. Include solid examples of your experiences to further make your case. Tip #5 shows you how to do this precisely.

In paragraph three: Proactively close out your cover letter by determining the next step in the process. Thank the employer for his or her consideration, mention the date or timeframe you will follow-up, and then do it. See Tip #10 for more details.”

Tip #9: Make your high school English teacher proud. Once you’ve crafted and drafted your cover letter, give it not just the once but the twice over. Read it objectively, channeling your high school English teacher or your former sadistic first sergeant (whichever one scares you the most).

  • Do a spelling and grammar check, not just with your computer but with your eyes as well.
  • Ask a trusted mentor or colleague to objectively review it.
  • Make sure your letter is written in a professional, business style format using a 10-12 point sans serif font.
  • Include your correct contact information. Make the heading on your cover letter match the heading on your resume.
  • Purge your cover letter of military-isms that don’t belong. Did you write your date as 1 Dec. 10 or as December 10, 2010? Did you effectively translate military words and concepts?
  • Keep it short and sweet, not exceeding one page.
  • Include a signature block and sign it (unless of course, your cover letter is an e-mail instead).

Tip #10: Don’t just forget about it. It’s snail-mailed, e-mailed or hand-carried to its final destination. It is now out of your hands, literally. Just because it is out of sight does not mean it should be out of mind, however. Note the date sent on your calendar and note a not too far in the future date to follow-up on it.


Janet Farley is the author of The Military-to-Civilian Career Transition Guide (Jist, Inc. 2010) and writes the JobTalk column for the Stars and Stripes Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @Mil2CivGuide and visit .

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