The cover letter is an essential element of applications. A letter is the first document that prospective employers will read so make it count, take it seriously, and be sure it is error-free.
Cover letters are also important when applying for admission to college because the person you ask to write a letter of recommendation for you needs and deserves comprehensive information about you. A résumé alone or transcript will not help him write an excellent letter, but these documents plus a cover letter will (more about this below).
First, formatting a cover letter is easy today. Word processing programs have templates available. Simply choose one and fill in the information to create an attractive format.
Be sure that the contact information from the résumé is the same and that your name is easy to find and read. Do not rely upon the signature line to present your name; incorporate your name in the letterhead.
In addition, conduct some research so that you address your letter to a real manager, personnel officer, scholarship committee member, or college admissions officer. “To Whom It May Concern” is impersonal and suggests that you have not given your undivided, personal attention to the position, college, or scholarship.
If it is simply impossible to discover the name of a single person to whom you address the letter, then use a logical title such as Personnel Officer, Scholarship Committee Member, or Admissions Officer. These titles suggest you have given some thought to the target audience.
Second, remember that cover letters are formal business letters. Be sure to show attention to detail by using a colon (:) after the greeting as in "Dear Personnel Officer:"
Third, the opening paragraph should be factual. Declare your purpose, using the examples below.
1. I hereby submit an application for the position of_________ (Advertised Job Title) with ______________ (Name of Company). I believe I possess the necessary skills to be an asset.
2. I hereby invite you to write a letter of recommendation for me as part of my application for admission to ___________________________ (Name of College or University or Technical School). I have attached a résumé for you to use as you prepare the letter and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.
Fourth, the second body paragraph is the one that counts, the one in which you will market yourself. In this paragraph, you will select and elaborate upon at least two honors or achievements. In doing so, you will shape the impression that your reader receives.
To begin this paragraph, read your own résumé. Identify the items that match the needs of the company to which you will apply or the needs of the university for which you need a recommendation. Ask yourself how you can communicate the significance of these items.
For example, your résumé may show a long-term commitment to music study and participation in the band throughout high school. How can you explain this fully so that the reader truly understands what you have gained from music and band? Consider the example below:
Throughout high school, I contributed to the school community while honing my musical talent as a member of the school’s nationally competitive marching band, an extracurricular activity that extends the school year and day. Band members rehearse during school holidays and compete for first-chair honors immediately upon return to school. In addition, in order to be ready for the competitive marching season and performances at football games, band members practice when school is not in session, even during hot summer months. They also arrive at school one hour early and stay one hour later than other students to practice. When called upon for local parades or athletic events, band members go; in some ways, they are the heart of school spirit.
From all of this extra effort, I have acquired outstanding organizational and teamwork skills. I must find the time to study my music and complete homework even when my schedule is full. I must also lead by being excellent for the other members of the band; its success depends upon the responsibility and preparedness of every member.
Through music and band, I believe I have developed skills that will facilitate my success in college. . . .
The band member who goes to the trouble of writing the information above into his cover letter has insured that his résumé will be interpreted correctly, that college admissions officers will appreciate his reflective abilities, and that writers of his recommendation letter will make use of the information. In fact, the band member has effectively spun his own record. This is what your second and subsequent paragraphs should do: spin your record so that readers recognize your assets.
On the other hand, you may see deficits as you look at your résumé. Cover letter writers may use the second and subsequent paragraphs to transform perceived deficits into assets. For example, what if, try as you might, you have no honors or achievements. Indeed, you have few activities. A reader may dismiss you unless you explain:
Perhaps you were simply too busy to join and excel in extracurricular activities. Perhaps you worked immediately after school and on weekends because your family needed the extra income. Perhaps, on occasion, you were the sole support for the family. You must tell your reader these facts so that he knows your perceived deficits are instead evidence of good work habits and personal responsibility.
Finally, the closing paragraph of your cover letter should be strong and positive. Avoid any appearance of doubt. Instead of writing “I hope to hear from you,” write “I look forward to hearing from you.” The difference is subtle but clear. The second example implies that you believe you are indeed qualified and have earned an interview or immediate admission.
GUM: Grammar, Usage and Mechanics
Let word processing programs work. Use the spell check feature, but remember, the machine will not recognize that “if” should actually be “is” in context because both words are spelled correctly. There is no substitute for slow, labored proofreading so do both. Use the spell-check feature and proofread; good writers even ask a third-party to read the document before a writer sends it. Mistakes are easy to make. I have made them all because our hands and eyes move a bit slower than our brains so read and re-read, check and double-check.
Use a search engine to find and read sample business letters. Make notes about the phrasing and details you find most persuasive.
Select at least two items from your sample résumés, written last week for last week’s writing challenge. Write body paragraphs that spin those items into recognizable assets. Provide details that are specific and concrete so that any reader will appreciate you and what you offer.