Peanut butter and jelly are two very different ingredients, but when put together, they make a sublime sandwich. Similarly, a cover letter and résumé should be two very different documents, but when joined together, they should make an appetizing application for an employer.
Compared with the résumé, many job seekers find the cover letter to be mysterious. People aren't quite sure what to put in them, so they simply rewrite the résumé in narrative form.
Thinking back to our metaphor, this would be having a sandwich with crunchy peanut butter and creamy peanut butter together. Why do this?
The résumé is the statement of abilities; it is the peanut butter of the application that will stick with the employer as they envision you using your skills for them. The cover letter, then, becomes our jelly — the sweetener of the application enticing employers to consider you a fit for the organization.
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Having exhausted that metaphor, here are some specific recommendations. A good cover letter comprises four distinct sections.
A concise introduction: This explains what you are applying for, how you found out about it and why you are seeking it.
The reason you are seeking a position is not because it helps you, but because you want to utilize your abilities in helping the company or organization meet their goals. The application is about meeting their needs; your needs are met when you receive the paycheck.
How you meet the requirements outlined in the job posting: This is where most people rewrite the résumé. Instead, effective cover letters highlight the main points of the posting and indicate that you are capable of doing those things, because your experience, as detailed in the résumé, has given you the requisite skills.
Be general about yourself in the cover letter but specific about the position you are seeking.
How you will fit within the company: Here, research is key. Read the company's mission statement and any other literature available. How does the company brand itself? What are its values? How do your values match its? An employer reading your letter should have a pretty good sense that you understand them and would fit in.
Thank the employer and ask for an interview: The whole purpose of the application, both the cover letter and résumé, is to encourage an employer to bring you in for that interview. Be assertive — ask for it!
A few more suggestions to help polish your cover letter:
■ Address your letter to a specific person, not "to whom it may concern."
■ Cover letters should be concise; one page is more than enough.
If you follow the recommendations above, you'll realize that each position you apply to should have a unique cover letter. A template letter will not cut it.
Heeding these few simple suggestions and writing a clear, persuasive and mistake-free letter will improve your chances of having choosey employers choose you for an interview.