A cover letter is the letter that accompanies and introduces your résumé or curriculum vitae. It explains to the reader how your experience, qualifications and personal qualities make you the right person for the job. While a CV on its own simply shows what you have done, the cover letter highlights and expands on those things you have done that are relevant to this particular job. It is in effect a guide to the 'best bits' of your CV. The cover letter is of critical importance. Employers read your cover letter first. If they don't like it, they may not even look at your CV, no matter how beautifully designed it is.
A good cover letter should:
- Elaborate your job objective and/or state the job you are applying for (see below)
- Emphasize and highlight those aspects of your education and experience detailed in your résumé/CV which are most relevant to this job
- Draw the attention of a prospective employer to your skills, talent and experience
- Indicate briefly what it is that attracts you to this job
- Suggest and get an interview
Cover letters come in two types: speculative letters, which are written to a company to ask if there is a job they could consider you for; and replies to job advertisements, where you are writing to apply for a specific and clearly described position. While there are some small differences, both letters are basically similar.
A cover letter should be constructed in three or four paragraphs, with a word limit of about 200-300 words. If it is longer, the reader may lose interest; if it is much shorter, it will seem as if you have nothing to say for yourself.
The first paragraph of a speculative cover letter introduces you and gives your reason for writing, specifying the sort of area you feel best suited to or hope to work in. A cover letter replying to a job advert is more rigid: you must mention in your first paragraph the advertised title of the job you are applying for, and how you read or heard about it.
I read with interest your advertisement in the New York Times of September 12, 1999 for the post of Administrative Assistant in the Archives Section of the National Library, and would like to apply for this position.
In the second paragraph you should concisely elaborate on those aspects of your experience or qualifications which are related to this company's needs. If you have a lot of material, this can be extended to twqo paragraphs. If you are replying to an advertisement, make sure you read carefully the requirements for the position and that you have mentioned briefly how your experience meets each of them. (If you cannot meet one of the requirements, don't apologize or emphasize your shortcomings: either suggest what alternative experience or qualifications you might be able to offer instead, or if you have none, just don't mention that point). The ideal structure in this part of the letter is to mention the relevant experience, then say what skills you have gained from this experience that are relevant to this job. It is also very good here to describe special achievements which show you to be an independent, creative and dynamic person.
My experience in working with a team of four colleagues at the University of Riga has enabled me to develop the skills of collaboration, negotiation and co-operative problem solving. While in this position I also designed and put into operation a unique database system for the storage of data about archaeological sites.
The next (penultimate) paragraph should normally indicate how this particular job or company would fit into your own career plans. A company is much more likely to employ someone they think will enjoy working for them than someone who will leave at the first opportunity. Some guides to writing suggest you should insert a proactive statement here to show you are assertive and professionally persistent. It would perhaps be preferable to say that your whole letter should give the overall impression of professionalism and persistence.
A job at the National Library is particularly appealing to me as it would give me the chance expand my interest and experience in archaeological research. I feel sure that the Library would also prove a stimulating work environment that would enable me to offer my best.
In the final section of the letter, include a sentence to the effect that you are happy to provide further information and that you hope to hear from the company regarding the possibility of an interview.
Do's and Don'ts
- address your cover letter to a named individual. If necessary, call the company or visit their website and find out who to send it to
- do some research and find out as much as you can about the company - again, the website is the best place to do this in most cases
- express confidence, but not arrogance
- send a neatly formatted and printed letter on A4 (or US letter) paper in a plain white envelope, the same color as your resume (preferably also white)
- keep it brief, no more than one page in easily read paragraphs
- answer the employer's question; "Why should I hire this person?"
- use simple, uncomplicated language and sentence structure
- clearly express your objective, and state what sort of position are you applying for
- request action and follow up
- provide a reachable address and phone number or e-mail if possible
- make a copy of each cover letter to use for future reference
- write a second time after a reasonable time, if you didn't get a response
- ever send your résumé without a cover letter
- write your letter by hand
- be negative or humble
- be over-boastful or self-aggrandizing
- use clichés or vague, meaningless phrases
- send a cover letter with misspellings, grammatical errors or smudges
- send letters that are obviously photocopied or mass produced
- list hobbies or personal interests unless they are related to the position you are applying for
A sample advertisement and a cover letter in response
Unilever Hungary has a vacancy for a Junior Sales Manager to work in the area of sales and marketing, particularly with our household product lines. Applicants should have previous experience in the area of sales and marketing, as well as an excellent command of English, appropriate computer skills, and a full current driving license.
Applications, including full curriculum vitae and references to:
Mr. Henrik Fan, Personnel Manager, UNILEVER Hungary, Budapest 1059, Piroska utca 21-23
Closing date: 17 March 2012
Sample Cover Letter: Response to Advertisement
Rozsa utca 68.II.2
Tel: 00 361 425 4563
10 March, 2012
Mr. Henrik Fan
Piroska utca 21-23,
Dear Mr. Fan,
I was very interested in your advertisement in the Budapest Sun last week for the post of junior sales manager. I feel that I would be an excellent candidate for this position, and would like to apply.
Through my work as marketing assistant for Glycom Armenia, I have built a strong record of significant achievement in progressively more responsible sales and office management position during my short career. My six months management placement experience with Palmolive in Great Britain provided me with intensive experience planning, developing and implementing sales of body care products. In addition to this I performed management responsibilities including the supervision of a staff of five. Having recently completed a Master’s degree in Economics at the Central European University, I have an excellent command of both written and spoken English, as well as a clear understanding of market forces. I have worked extensively with Microsoft Word and Excel both in a work environment and in my recent studies, and am conversant with the most popular Internet software. I possess a full driving license.
A position with Unilever Hungary would offer me the opportunity to further develop my experience in the area of sales and marketing, a field of work which I find stimulating and fulfilling, within the framework of a company with an established international reputation.
Please find enclosed a copy of my curriculum vitae, with details of references as requested. Should you have any further questions, you may reach me at the above address, phone number or email. I look forward to hearing from you to discuss your organization and how my experience can contribute to its success.