General Directions

Avoid irrelevant information. You don't have much space, so only tell the employer about skills and experiences which apply to the specific job, no matter how impressive or significant they might seem. If you won the All-Nevada Elvis Impersonation Contest, keep it to yourself, unless you're applying for a job as an Elvis impersonator.

Your cover letter may not include any errors whatsoever. This seems obvious, but some applicants think that they don't need to be careful about grammar or spelling. That is false. You must not make errors. Errors in a cover letter either convey that the applicant (1) lacks professionalism and attention to detail or (2) is a chimpanzee. You don't want to convey either of those things. "Not making errors" includes mispellings... we mean "misspellings," ending sentences with prepositions, and all the other stuff you should've learned from our infamous article SoYouWanna avoid common writing errors.

In a cover letter, it is standard to use the first person "I" in your writing (unlike a résumé, where it is uncommon to use "I"). It is weird and unnecessary to refer to yourself as "Mr. Smith" or whatever when you are describing your experience. Your cover letter is supposed to be a little more personal, so it's OK.

Avoid jargon and clichés. The people who review cover letters and résumés are not always industry insiders; many are human resources specialists. If you turn them off with your super-technical jargon, you aren't doing yourself any favors (what in the world does a human resources specialist know about "jundical recapitulation techniques?"). Clichés, on the other hand, are never good style. Except when we use them.

Use action verbs whenever possible. You must give the impression that you are capable of doing things and that you are constantly in action. When we say action verbs, we mean verbs that describe the nature of the activity. For example, instead of writing "I was the Director of Sanitation" or "I served as the Director of Sanitation," write "I directed the Department of Sanitation," or "I sanitized toilets." To get a good list of action verbs, go to SoYouWanna write an impressive résumé. You should check that page out anyway, since the point of a cover letter is to get the reader to look at your résumé.

Be brief. Your letter should never be more than one page long. The longer the letter, the less likely the reader is to finish it.

Don't try to be funny. Your letter should not be completely dry, but the person reading it is not your chum and you don't know what, if any, sense of humor he or she has.

Don't justify or explain why you are leaving your present job. Instead, explain why you want this job. You'll have plenty of time to explain yourself in your interview.

Specific Instructions

Your letter should be composed of three or four short paragraphs.

The first paragraph should always tell the reader who you are and why you are writing. In fact, if you are stumped for an opener, a popular one is "I am writing to. . ." You should inform the reader of what specific position you are seeking, why you think the company needs your services (e.g., you heard that they were recruiting, you were referred by someone, you saw an advertisement in X, etc.), and anything else which you think briefly explains why you are writing. This is a good place to include a brief reference to something you know about the company, such as its being one of the top ten pet food manufacturers in Alaska, its being voted one of the top 100 companies to work for in America, or its progressive employee relations policies as reported in Time. Don't go into detail here in the first paragraph. Just drop a little factoid that shows you're familiar with the company's exploits.

The second paragraph should describe your professional skills and academic qualifications for the position you're seeking. Don't mention details about your skills and schooling that don't apply to the specific company and position. Nobody cares what courses you took in school, or which one was your favorite, unless there is some clear tie-in to the job at hand. Some experience and training is very broadly relevant, and that's fine to include for almost any job. For example, having run your own business is good experience in general, and it wouldn't hurt to mention it briefly in most cover letters (it would show that you have business savvy, and that you've handled major responsibilities). On the other hand, just because you think your job as a tree planter made you grow as a person in ways that affect every aspect of your life, doesn't mean that anyone else cares. Tree planting experience simply isn't relevant to working as an insurance adjuster no matter what kind of spin you put on it. Of course, if you're trying to become an insurance adjuster and all you've ever done is plant trees, you've got no choice but to ignore our advice. You have our sympathy and you are forgiven.

The third paragraph should explain how you are a good fit at the company and how you will be a valuable asset in the position you want. This is your opportunity to show what you know about the company and to relate it to what you've told the reader about yourself to make you and the company seem like a great match. Employers like to see that you've taken enough interest in the company to find out about it, and that you've thought about how you will fit in with them. Remember we told you that the letter should consist of three or four paragraphs? Some people will do the work of what we call the third paragraph in the second paragraph, and do what we describe as the fourth paragraph in the third paragraph. You followed that, right? It's up to you how you want to handle it, but we recommend splitting the discussion of your qualifications and your fit with the company into two separate (namely, the second and third) paragraphs.

The fourth paragraph should request that the company schedule an interview with you or contact you about your application. Don't be arrogant about it, just politely write that you would be very interested in scheduling an interview and that you would appreciate it if he or she would contact you about it. If you are going to be in the area any time soon, you should also mention when you'll be there and how long you're going to stay.

Next, you should write a line which says something like (or exactly): "Thank you for your time and consideration." (This line can be the last line in the fourth paragraph or a one line paragraph of its own.) Then, on the next line, lined up with your address in the top right hand corner, write "Yours sincerely," "Yours very truly," or "Sincerely." Then skip three to five lines (depending on space), and, lined up with "Sincerely," or whatever, write your name. Then sign it, sign it, sign it. An unsigned letter is approximately as impressive as a letter with dried food on it.