Cover letter tips

These cover letter tips provide a comprehensive 'how to' for preparing cover letters for your resume so that your job application goes to the top of the pile...... every time!

Many of the points below are straightforward.....the normal things any employer would consider as being usual practice in business correspondence.

However, when you are writing a cover letter you probably won't want to take any chances with either the content of your letter, or the way it is set out.

The tips provided here apply to virtually any application letter that you write.

Your letter might, for example, be in relation to a local job search where you want to pursue a similar career.

Or..... you might be writing a letter that is related to making a career change, or writing a cover letter for resumes you intend to send out when responding to job ads.

Whatever the purpose......you can apply the cover letter advice and tips outlined here with confidence.

Click on the links to go to the relevant section on this page:

Are you sending your cover letter and resume by email? Take a look at the special techniques for preparing an email cover letter so that your email is opened, not deleted.

Cover letter tips - the basics

How long should your letter be?

Your cover letter should be no more than one, to one and a half pages in length. Ideally keep it to a single page.

Address your letter to a person, not a position

If you are applying for an advertised job appearing on one of the job search websites you'll often find that you will have to address your application to a position - for example "please address a letter of application to the Human Resources Manager, quoting....."

Take all the steps you can to contact the advertiser, or ring the organisation advertising the position to find the name of the person who will be making decisions about your application. Address your letter to them.

Cover letter tips

The advantage of this is there is a much greater likelihood of this person actually opening and reading your letter and attached resume, rather than an administrative assistant.

Further to this, when you phone to get the contact's details, you have a great opportunity to find out more about the position.

Ask questions to learn more about which of the selection criteria are most important, and what they are really looking for in their ideal candidate.

Make it easy to deal with your application

Ensure your contact details are on the letter - your name, address, telephone number/s and email address.

While this information will be included in your resume... repeat your contact details on the letter. Proper business correspondence conventions would require that this information is included - either at the top right hand side, or top left hand side of your letter.

Additionally however, having your contact details included in your letter makes it easy for the employer to contact you - they won't have to refer to your resume to get this information.

If a reference number has been included in the job advertisement, make sure that you quote this reference number in your cover letter.

The salutation - making a good first impression

Use the person's name and correct title at the beginning of your letter. People are extremely sensitive about the use and spelling of names, and employers are no different.

Further to the previous point of addressing the letter to a person, you should ideally open your letter with the correct salutation (or greeting), using that person's name.

Here are some variations that you might encounter regarding the correct salutation:

  • If you know the contact person's name but haven't spoken to them the correct salutation would be...."Dear Mr King,"
  • If know your contact is a married woman it will obviously be ..."Dear Mrs King,"
  • If you know your contact is a single woman ....."Dear Miss King,"
  • If you are not certain a female contact prefers Miss or Mrs, the correct form of salutation is to use Ms......"Dear Ms King,"
  • Unsure about a person's gender? The accepted practice for a person with a gender neutral name is to use both names, but without a title......"Dear Cameron Jones," or ....."Dear A.K. Bugoss,"

Where you have spoken directly to the contact and know the person's name, it is acceptable to begin your letter by referring to their first name, for example....."Dear Stephen," or "Dear Catherine,"

Where the person has a title such as Doctor, it is usual commence the salutation with their title, followed by family name. For example...."Dear Dr King,"

Cover letter tips

When do you use a comma or semi-colon after the salutation?

It is accepted practice in American business letters to use a colon after the salutation, as follows......:Dear Mr McGowan:"

In other countries it is more common to place a comma after the salutation......"Dear Ms McGowan,"

What to do if you don't have a contact name?

While this is not an ideal situation, in some cases it will not be possible to address your cover letter to a person. In these situations one of the most common salutations is to use "To whom it may concern".

Here are some alternatives:

  • Use a job title......"Dear Human Resources Manager," or "Dear Recruiter,"
  • Use......"Dear Sir, or Madam," - for use in British English letters.
  • Use......"Dear Ladies and Gentlemen:" - for use in US English cover letters.

Cover letter tips - Structure of your letter

Title of the letter

After the salutation, and if you are responding to a job advertisement, it is common practice to give the letter a title. The title of the letter will usually start with something like:

Re: General Manager Position - Your reference ABC22

To make this information stand out, and to add to the visual appeal of your letter, make this heading bold and centre it in the document.

First paragraph - why you are writing the letter

Basically this explains why you are writing the letter. Your opening sentence/s need to be catchy and energetic - written in a way which attracts the attention and interest of the reader.

Second paragraph - what you have to offer

This paragraph will probably contain the majority of the content in your letter. By far the easiest way of doing this is to write a sentence like...."Following is a summary of the qualifications, skills and experience that I would bring to this position (or to your organisation)".

After this introductory sentence then use headings with accompanying dot points to provide a summary of your skills, experience and qualifications.

Cover letter tips - the second paragraph

If you are responding to a job advertisement, it is essential that the summary you provide in this second paragraph is directly related to the selection criteria which is contained in the job ad.

The reader must be able to quickly establish the relevance of your application to their needs.

It is quite OK to repeat information about capabilities that you have described in your resume (which must also be tailored to the selection criteria.

The main difference is, in your letter you can only provide very brief, concise details - basically a summary of your resume content.

Third paragraph - explain that your resume is attached

A cover letter will have an accompanying resume.

In this paragraph, simply explain that your resume is attached for further information and explanation about your suitability for the position.

Final paragraph - the next steps in your application

This is one of the more important cover letter tips. Your final paragraph needs to finish on a high note.

Emphasise your confidence in being able to make a contribution.

Link this statement to your expectation that you will enjoy the opportunity of a meeting where you can further outline your ability to perform in the role to their complete satisfaction.

Cover letter tips

A poor or weak closing paragraph can completely destroy your chances of being interviewed.

So avoid closing paragraphs like these:

  • Thank you for taking time to read my application, I hope to hear from you soon.
  • I hope to hear from you soon, I can be contacted at any time on....

Instead, write something like:

I look forward to meeting you in the near future where I would further like to demonstrate to you my ability to perform this role in a manner which will at least meet, if not exceed your expectations.

Your closing paragraph should imply through your "tone" that you expect to be interviewed.

Closing your letter

If you are sending your letter to a person (not a position or title!), close your letter with "Yours Sincerely".

"Yours Faithfully" is the accepted form of close where your letter hasn't been addressed to a specific person.

Finish the letter by including your name. Leave a few blank lines between Yours Sincerely/Faithfully so that you can sign the letter.

Cover letter tips - Presentation

Making the best possible impression

Two more really important cover letter tips - these are non-negotiable:

  • Your cover letter must not have a single spelling error.
  • Ensure that your grammar is correct.

Spelling is the most critical - use the spell checker if spelling is not a strength for you.

Most employers are very intolerant about poor spelling - it shows a lack of attention to detail on your part. You might also ask someone who you know can spell really well to proof read your letter.

Grammar - this might especially be an issue if English is not your first language. Similarly, the subject of English might not have been your favourite at school, college and university. If you lack confidence in your use of grammar, get someone who has skills in this area to proof read your document.

If you don't use grammar well in your letter and resume it will cause the employer to question the quality of your communication skills.

Choice of paper

If you are sending your application through the traditional postal service you will need to make a decision about the paper on which to write your letter.

There are some who would suggest that you purchase some quality paper. These people suggest that you choose mild pastel coloured paper such as light grey, rose, light blue, tan or ivory.

While using better quality, and coloured paper might get you some initial attention, my suggestion is stick to the basics. Plain A4 white paper works just fine.

Envelope and mailing

Send your documents - your cover letter and your resume, in an envelope which is sufficiently large so that your documents do not have to be folded. This is for no other reason than flat documents mean simpler handling at the receiving end.

Make sure you attach the correct postage.

Email cover letter tips

While the cover letter tips on this page are relevant to most job application situations, there are some slight differences in the preparation of cover letters which you want or need to send by email.

Learn more about how to prepare an email cover letter here.

Cold call cover letters

A cold call cover letter is when you make a direct approach to a prospective employer - uninvited. They don't know who you are. And you don't know if a position exists or not, but....you do know that you'd like to work for the organisation.

Go to this link to learn how to write a highly effective cold call cover letter.

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