Professional and Technical Writing/Career/Cover Letters
Cover letters are meant to be cohesive and well thought out. A résumé serves as a first impression, and a cover letter reiterates how your skills and abilities will accentuate the company’s mission and beliefs. Your cover letter introduces yourself to potential employers on a more personal level. Employers typically spend the most time examining a résumé, but if your cover letter is unorganized and unattractive, they won't be examining you further. The key is to be both professional and personal while keeping the look of your cover letter clean and concise.
Why Use a Cover Letter
- It is an informational letter used to highlight your most relevant skills for the employer.
- It is a letter of introduction to introduce you and your background to the employer.
- It is a sales letter intended to convince the employer that you have something to offer that makes it worth his/her time to interview you.
- Introduces you to potential employer and explain in detail who you are and what you can offer the employer.
- Enhances your résumé because if the potential employer likes your résumé, your cover letter is the next document they will look at.
- Describes how your experiences make you a prime candidate for the open position.
- Shows your interest in a position.
- Enables you to provide reasons on why you would fit the position best and work with the other employees.
Even though a good cover letter will advertise your accomplishments and explain how well you fit in with the company, cover letters are not meant as an opportunity to brag. If you exaggerate and lie, you will be held accountable for your actions and your cover letter will have the opposite effect of what you intended. Be honest and upfront in your cover letter. Remember that the goal is to get an interview and to not explain your life story. Save the very specific details of your experiences for the interview.
Unlike résumés, cover letters must be specific to each individual job. They must be thoroughly researched to show that you know the mission and objectives of the company and how you fit that profile. By doing some background research, you immediately make yourself sound qualified for the job you are applying for; therefore, cover letters cannot be generic. Sending the same letter, without any regard to the specifics of the company would risk you sounding bland and broad, thus not getting an interview with the prospect employer.
It is important to practice good ethics even in the early stages of applying for a job. Unethical representation of yourself is not only unprofessional but in some instances it is illegal. Be confident with the skills and experiences you already have and represent them honestly. Your personality and work ethics will speak for itself to impress employers. The following are three major areas where prospective employees tend to cross the boundary of ethics:
Team Efforts: Although it may be more impressive if you take sole credit for a major project, it is unethical to do so if you worked with a team. Many companies respond well to suggestions of teamwork, because it shows that candidates work well with others and can switch back and forth between leading and following. If you have worked in teams in the past, try to subtly reference it instead of writing, "I work well in groups." It sounds more impressive to work your teamwork into a PAR Statement. For example, "When my team and I encountered a budget problem, we were able to save the company money by reducing the need for unnecessary resources." This is less blunt, but gets the point across that you can work with others in a team.
Exaggeration: Some applicants believe that although lying in a cover letter is frowned upon, exaggeration is fine. Exaggeration is the same as lying. Employers react to it the same way, and although it may seem more difficult to trace an exaggeration back to an applicant, it is not. Some people may try to avoid exaggeration, but opt to use a lot of flowery, excessive language in their cover letters to either impress potential employers or provide filler to cover up lack of experience or accomplishments. The skills and abilities you tell an employer in a cover letter will expected of you if you happened to get the job. If you cannot perform like you stated, they can fire you and sue you for false statements. They will do this because it took time and money to hire you, and if they have to replace you right away, they will not be impressed. It can and will hurt your reputation.
References: Make sure your references know you intend to include them before you submit your cover letter. That way, if an employer contacts your references, they are prepared to give you a good review instead of being caught off guard (or worse, letting the employer know that they weren't aware of their involvement in your job search). It is a good idea to give a copy of your cover letter (and résumé) for each employer to your references so they are prepared for possible questions about your job skills and what you intend to bring to the company.
Creating and personalizing your cover letter is a step-by-step process. You want to advertise yourself to the employer by showing them what you can do for their company. There are three things that you should imagine employers asking you before they read your cover letter:
- Why have you chosen us over another company?
- How are you going to help us be successful?
- What makes you a good fit with our other employees and clients?
How to Start
Thoroughly research every company you apply for. Employers are impressed if you know background information about their companies; however, do not fill up your cover letter with too many facts. They work for the company, so they already know the information. The company's website is a great place to start researching, but you can also contact the company's current employees. Employers want to know that you know the position you are applying for and how it impacts their bottom line. Knowing yourself is the first criteria, since that will enable you to fit yourself into the company plan.
Drafting Your Cover Letter
Like most papers, cover letters have three main parts: An Introduction, a Body, and a Conclusion. How you utilize these three parts is up to you and your creativity; however, try to focus on answering these following questions:
- What job do I want?
- What do I know about this company?
- Why have I applied for this job over another?
- What are my qualifications and how will they help the employer?
Having a friend, family member, co-worker, classmate, teacher, or anyone read through the first draft of your cover letter is important and helpful. While you may think your letter makes sense and sounds perfect, others may think differently. A set of "fresh eyes" can often find hidden mistakes, unintentional exaggerations, or awkward phrasing that the author might not notice. If there is no one else that can proof read for you, read it aloud to yourself.
It is very important to go through several drafts before sending out your final cover letter to potential employers. Revision is often overlooked, but it is a very important part of the writing process. It is also important to understand that one cover letter for one company will be completely different for another company, even if they are in the same profession. It is important to make sure your cover letter is written to the specific audience that will be reading it. This will change with each company, so it is essential to know the culture of each organization.
Here is an example of a cover letter's format:
PAR statements are an extremely important element of the cover letter.
Problem: Define a problem that existed in your previous work environment. This should be something related to the position for which you are applying, something that will appeal to the reader of your cover letter as something you might come across if you were hired, or something that shows an above and beyond initiative. For example, "The company wasted paper that could have been recycled".
Action: Describe the actions or methods you took to resolve or prevent the problem. This should be an opportunity to show the employer your desire to improve the company or your creativity in problem solving. For example, "I implemented numerous recycling bins throughout the company"
Resolution: This is an opportunity to portray the benefits you brought to the company. You can point out the benefits of your actions, and the results of your initiative and leadership. "Recycling bins reduced unnecessary waste by 80%."
Using P.A.R. statements will get you noticed, while the prospective employer is reading your cover letter. They will see direct results and resolutions that you have done.
After the initial cover letter is written, it is very important to look over your work to make sure everything is grammatically correct and free of errors. A good idea is to get the help of a friend, classmate, family member, or colleague to read your work and make suggestions for improvement. A set of "fresh eyes" typically can find errors and confusing sentences that you accidentally read over. More than one opinion is always helpful. An effective cover letter is one that is well written with no errors. Many employers will discard letters and résumés of those that have even a slight error. A simple proofreading by yourself and others can make your chances of obtaining an interview increase. Re-thinking and re-wording certain sentences can alleviate possible confusion and hardship in explaining yourself to the hiring authority.
Researching a Company
In order to best portray yourself as an ideal candidate for a company, you must know something about the company's mission, interests, values, and history. By showing your knowledge of the way they run their business, you prove to the company that you are willing to work hard for their overall success. If your values do not match those of the job you're applying for, the position may not work out. Knowing ahead of time what the company is looking for in employees helps both the applicant and the hiring authority find who is best for the position. At the same time, however, a person must be careful to not appear too eager when "selling" oneself to a company.
Business Reference Library
The University of Minnesota's Business Reference Library is an excellent resource for students. The library has many resources for researching companies through many different databases. The Business Reference Library is also a great way to find companies in a specific industry in which to apply.
Hoovers is a company database with information on 43,000 companies in 600 industries. Each listing has information on company officers, locations, financial data, and primary competitors. Hoovers is a convenient resource that gathers a large amount of public information about many different companies.
Million Dollar Database
The Million Dollar Database lists companies in the United States with at least $1 million in sales or at least 20 employees. The Million Dollar Database currently lists over 1.6 million companies. The listings include company executives, business descriptions, subsidiaries, industries in which the company operates, and competitors. The Million Dollar Database holds information on smaller private companies that is not otherwise easily found.
Reference USA is a database of over 14 million U.S. and 1.5 million Canadian companies. Information is updated monthly and includes company executives, industries, competitors, and sales and expenditure information. Reference USA does not offer the breadth of information that is offered in databases such as Hoover's, but it lists information on a huge number of companies, searchable by industry, location, and other parameters.
Which company is right for me?
The first thing you must do is to determine what core values and morals are most important to you as a person. Once you know where you stand on certain issues, finding companies that have similar ideals is much easier. One area that will show how a company stands on major issues is political contributions. There are several websites available to view political contributions, which give a clear idea of where the company lies in terms of issues.
Open Secrets is a website that enables one to find specific contributions by companies and special interests in political campaigns. At this particular website, under the "Influence and Lobbying" tab, clicking on "Industries" will bring you to a page where you can search specific industries relating to the type of company you are interested in applying for. From here you can determine how much money is donated and which party is the major recipient of employee and company dollars. By learning which major political party the company donates their money to, you are able to associate yourself with companies that match your own affiliations.
MAPLight.org is another website similar to Open Secrets, where one can find information about political money and interest groups. The full title of the site is, "Money and Politics: Illuminating the Connection." In election years, such as 2008, websites like these were helpful in learning about where money comes from and how politicians were funded. It is another useful tool in matching your own values with those of a specific industry.
How can I obtain this information?
An effective research method is to directly contact those individuals already employed or affiliated with the company or organization you are striving toward. It helps to network and make contacts with successful individuals who can give you advice on how to break into a certain industry. Inside knowledge on how an organization works will give your cover letter an edge over other potential applicants. Knowing what current employees know shows your willingness to go further in future endeavors. Calling the company or organization directly can help you in obtaining the basic information given out to the public about their mission statements or what exactly the company is selling.
Chances are if you are hoping to work in a specific field for a specific organization or company, you already know something about the desired employer. Drawing on what you already know about the company will diminish the possibility of fake enthusiasm for an employer you recently discovered. If you are an expert in your chosen field from years of experience, the hiring authority will be able to detect these from the applicants with little fervor for the job.
Libraries are often overlooked when it comes to research, due in part to the emphasis on the internet. However, a library usually has an extensive amount of journals, magazines, and books not found in a simple search on the web. Citing specific articles about a company or organization adds to your appearance.
Researching is only as difficult as you make it. There are plenty of resources available to discover great companies and organizations that match your interests and values. The time spent to further your knowledge of industries is well worth the effort for an effective cover letter. By catering to a specific company's values in each cover letter written, your work will speak for itself.
Cover Letter Revision Checklist
The following checklist describes the basic elements of a cover letter.
_____ Determined exactly as possible what the employer wants?
_____ Learned enough about the job and employer to tailor your letter to them?
_____ Addresses a specific individual, if possible?
_____ Tells clearly what you want?
_____ Persuades that you know specific, relevant things about the reader's organization?
_____Conveys that you like the company?
_____ Explains how the knowledge, abilities, and experiences described in your résumé are relevant to the specific job for which you are applying?
_____ Sounds cordial, yet clearly set out a plan of action?
_____ Uses clear sentences with varied structures?
_____ Uses an easy-to-follow organization?
_____ Uses a confident but modest tone?
_____ Expresses the action in verbs, not nouns?
_____ Uses strong verbs?
_____ Uses correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation?
_____ Looks neat and attractive?
_____ Includes all the elements of a business letter?
_____ Describes your qualifications honestly?
_____ Avoids statements intended to mislead?
_____ Shows that you are aware of your reader's goals and concerns when hiring?
_____ Demonstrates that you are a skilled communicator?
Cover Letter Dos and Don'ts
- Do use the first paragraph to grab the employer's attention and highlight your company research.
- Do keep thing simple - using complicated, lengthy sentences will make your letter cumbersome and a difficult read for recruiters. Keep it articulate and easy to understand.
- Do keep your letter short and sweet. Don't ever use more than one page. Generally, each paragraph should have no more than 3 sentences.
- Do avoid being negative about anything in a cover letter - this includes previous jobs, supervisors, etc.
- Don't send out mass mailings of your cover letter and resume. This has extremely low odds for success in today's job market. Personalize and individualize each letter.
- Don't focus your letter on what the company can do for you. Rather, tell them than what you can do for them. Focus on how you can contribute to the success of the organization.
- Don't walk step by step through your resume. A recruiter can read your resume. Use your cover letter to highlight the things that you want to call attention to.
- Don't forget to personally sign the letter
Resumes. (2004). Undergraduate job search handbook. Minneapolis: Carlson School of Management.