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How to Write a Cover Letter

A cover letter should be the appetizer that whets an employer's hiring appetite. In a few brief paragraphs, you need to demonstrate how your unique combination of skills will add value to the company - and why you are a better fit than all those other candidates.

"This should be about grabbing someone's attention with your view of their problem and how you can solve it," says Beth Hendler-Grunt. She is the CEO of Next Great Step, a company dedicated to coaching new graduates looking for jobs.

"It should not be a recap of the resume attached. It should give insight to how you have thought about the position and what impact you can make on the business."

Research the company and the specific position so you can tailor your cover letter to that particular employer (and yes, you should always address the letter to a specific person.) What are they looking for and how can you provide it? Give concrete evidence of how your abilities will benefit the company.

"If you say that you can help a company achieve greater success, you have to show how you can do that and demonstrate your competence that you have done it before," says Hendler-Grunt.

If you worked for a campus newspaper, for instance, talk about how you delegated responsibility, took the initiative to try new design software, and learned how to lead meetings while still being part of a team. Don't exaggerate, but don't be modest either. This is your chance to really sell yourself.

Be careful not to get too wordy. A cover letter should be short and to the point. Be selective in what you choose to emphasize. Keep it focused, simple and interesting.

Here are a few more tips:

  • Stay away from templates. Don't copy samples word for word - it shows. Don't get someone else to write the letter for you, either. Just be yourself and do it yourself. Make the letter unique to who you are and it will likely stand out.
  • Be enthusiastic, but not gushing. Many employers place a high premium on "fit." If there are lots of qualified people for a position, a candidate with a real passion for the work may come out on top. Be clear about why you want the job, but don't say anything you don't really mean.
  • Avoid jokes and putting yourself down. A cover letter is not the place to show off your sense of humor. Keep the funny anecdotes for your dinner parties, or at least until the employer establishes the tone of your subsequent conversations. Maintain a professional distance first.
  • Proofread carefully. Misspellings and poor grammar may indicate to the employer that you'd be a careless employee. Use proper English and avoid abbreviations, slang or technical jargon.

When you do submit your application, put the cover letter in the body of the email. Don't add it as a separate attachment unless the company's online application system requires you to do it that way. (If an online system won't allow you to submit a cover letter at all, try to find someone you can email to follow up.)

"Many people scan emails and do not open attachments," says Hendler-Grunt. "If you want to get their attention, you need to state it in the body of the email. If you decide to attach it, you still need to say something compelling [in the email] that shows your understanding of their needs and how you can help them.