Nobody likes to work. But most people prefer working to rummaging through dumpsters for the really fresh waste, so most of us will need a cover letter at some point in our lives. The fact is, you need a cover letter every time you send out a résumé; simply dropping off a résumé with an employer seems impersonal and lazy, and non-government employers avoid employees with those traits.

What is a cover letter? It's a letter (duh) that you send to a potential employer along with your résumé. A cover letter is important because, among other things, (1) it will tell the recipient for whom the résumé is intended, (2) it can elaborate on your knowledge of the company and your desire to work for it, and (3) it allows you to name drop. So if you are on the hunt for a new job, you will need to produce cover letters with brilliance, flair, and speed, and, therefore, you will need to settle in and read this SYW.


Each cover letter must be produced for a specific employer. You can recycle some of the text for cover letters within the same industry, but each letter should contain a reference to something about the employer/company and what he/she/it has done. If you're thinking that you don't know anything about a potential employer or what it has done, then bust out the ginseng. You've got some research to do.

You should first research your industry and learn:

  • important business or technological trends
  • significant recent transactions
  • hiring trends, popular terms
  • phrases and subject matter

This background information about the industry will help you to write all cover letters for jobs in the industry. Then, for each individual employer, you should find out:

  • the nature of the company's business
  • its major clients or customers
  • its history, important recent transactions or developments
  • hiring trends and employment needs

Wait a minute -- this research crap sounds like work. It is work, but it will help you get a job. Think: the more you know about an industry and a particular company, the more effective your cover letter will be in communicating that you are a good candidate. People who send in bland, non-specific cover letters communicate (1) that they know little about the industry, and/or (2) that they didn't care enough to research the company they want to work for.

Don't believe us? Read selected excerpts from these two cover letters:


    To whom it may concern:

    I have a great interest in your field, and I have been informed that your company is an industry leader. I am thus writing to you to apply for a job.


    Dear Ms. Nice:

    After receiving a degree in nuclear waste management and working in a nuclear waste plant for 20 years, I am well aware that your company, the Acme Nuclear Plant, is the most respected in the industry. Your colleague, Mr. Friend, has informed me that Acme is searching for an experienced manager to restructure the Waste division, and I would be grateful for the opportunity to join your team.

OK, these are not stellar letters, but if you were Ms. Nice, which candidate's résumé would you be more likely to read? The second letter (in two sentences) directly addresses a need in the company and a preliminary reason to consider that candidate (with a little namedropping thrown in for good measure).

Now there's just one more little tidbit you DEFINITELY need (which we exemplified above): the name of the person to whom cover letters and résumés should be sent. This last piece of information is very important, and it is usually easy to find. Simply phone the company's main line and ask to speak to someone in personnel, recruiting, or human resources. Whoever picks up the phone in one of those departments should be able to tell you to whom you can send your stuff. If you get an answering machine, call the receptionist again and politely ask if he or she can tell you the name and address of the person who accepts résumés. You probably won't be asked for your name, so don't worry about pestering them or saying the wrong thing. The rest of the information can be discovered through recruiting pamphlets, the career services office at your school (alumni are usually allowed to make use of such resources), the company's website, or newspapers, magazines, or websites that discuss the industry. One last thing: if you know someone who already works at the company and can help you pull strings, send a copy of your résumé and cover letter to that person, and mention their name.


There is a relatively strict format for cover letters that should always remain the same. This format is boring and standard, but important. We'll present it in point form:
  1. Use white or ivory paper only. Do not use paper with patterns, borders, a picture, or anything fancy. Rely on the strengths of the letter.

  2. Write your address, telephone number (personal - don't use your business number unless you're sure it won't lead to trouble at your current job), email address, and the date, in that order, in the top right-hand corner.

  3. Below your address, on the left-hand margin, write the name, title, and address of the person to whom you are sending the letter (do not be lazy and fail to get the name; the nameless "Recruiting Coordinator" to whom you send your letter will not be impressed).

  4. Skip a line, write "Dear Ms./Mr./Mrs./Dr./Professor Whatever," then skip a line and start writing your letter. Don't use "Miss" or "Mrs." unless you have received correspondence from the person using that salutation. If, when asking someone about the name of the recruiter, you think he or she says "Miss," assume it was actually "Ms."

  5. Send an original, signed letter, not a photocopy.

Do not attempt to use a creative format, unless your job is 100% based on creativity. Some people applying for positions in comic book drawing or MTV game-show producing might try and take a chance by using a wacky cover letter, but we still recommend that you stick with what we suggest. The wacky cover letter usually looks unprofessional, and the people who get jobs with wacky cover letters probably would've gotten the job with a normal one. These standard cover letter conventions should constitute an unremarkable, but perfectly executed background. Do not allow your format to distract attention from the good things you say about yourself in your cover letter.


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.


Once you've written your fabulous cover letter, you must sit down and read through it very carefully. Recruiters and employers tell many amusing stories about the errors that applicants make. These include:

  • Addressing their letters to the correct street address, but wrong company or person
  • Praising a company for accomplishments that were actually achieved by the company's competitors
  • Failing to sign their names
  • Failing to include the date
  • Misspelling the recruiters' names
  • Misspelling their own names

Don't make any of these errors, because you'll look like a clown. We just got a cover letter the other day, which praised the applicant's ability to "assess" things, but accidentally misspelled the word "asses." Slight difference. Another cover letter we received obviously wasn't proofread by the applicant, considering that many of his lowercase "i"s were actually "j"s. Go through your letter with a fine-toothed comb, then do so again, then get somebody else to read it - it's easy to miss errors when you wrote them. Find somebody that is really anal and picky, like your librarian, proctologist, or English teacher. If you don't know anybody like that, promise us that you'll get someone to look your letter over. It's really a musk. You see why?

Once you're certain that your letter is completely free of errors, it's internally consistent, you've signed it, you've got all the right names, titles, companies, and addresses on there, and there's no dried food on it, fold it up with your résumé and any other materials and send it on its way. We wish you the best of luck. Maybe -- just maybe -- that dream job working for that clever website you love will be yours. . .