10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Cover Letter
Posted June 3, 2013 & filed under Job Search, Resume
A cover letter’s sole purpose is to tell a potential employer as much about yourself in as few words as possible. It must be terse, informative, and appealing to a hiring manager’s eye. Sounds easy right? Unfortunately too many job seekers fall into the trap of simply regurgitating some of the material that is already present in their resume. This is a quick and surefire way to lose the interest of any hiring manager. So what should a cover letter contain, and how should you go about writing it?
When was the last time you reflected on why you entered a particular field, how you ended up working for your last employer, or where you want to be in the future? Hiring managers want to see more out of a cover letter than, “this field really interests me,” or “I’ve wanted to be an engineer since I was a child.” Your cover letter is the time to tell a company why they should even bother investing the time via an interview to learn more about you. Use it well.
The 5 W’s (and that leftover H)
Structure is the basis of any good piece of writing. Organizing and gathering information should take up at least half of the time you spend writing anything. Use this time to think about what it is you want to convey? Get to know yourself. What is the best way to prepare a cover letter? Use the 5 W’s.
If you have ever taken a course on journalism, or had to speak about current events, you probably have heard of the Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How of articles. They explain everything about a particular piece of writing.
Whether you are seeking an entry level position, were recently laid off, or are looking to move on to a better opportunity, ask yourself these 10 questions not only as a means of self-reflection but as a means of laying a foundation for your cover letter.
1. Who is this letter for?
Knowing your audience is the key to successful writing. It always helps to find out who will be reading your letter. The more you know about your audience, the better suited you will be to write something that will be attractive to them.
2. What do I know about this company?
Spend some time researching the company and tailor your cover letter specifically for them. The more you know about the company’s history and direction, the better you will be able to explain how you can help them get there.
3. What type of job am I looking for?
An objective is a good way to start off your cover letter. Why are you applying to a position with this particular company? What interests you about the position? Show some interest in actually taking on the tasks that will be assigned to you rather than seeming like you just want any old job.
4. What skills do I possess that relate to this job?
What good would a cover letter be without informing the hiring manager of what your qualifications are? This isn’t the time to simply list programs and certifications that you are trained in. Know what will be asked of you in this position and elaborate on how your skills make you the best candidate for the job.
5. What have I done to help my previous employers reach their goals?
What were your major accomplishments at your last job? Surely you didn’t just slide through work every day merely doing your job. Your cover letter should brag – humbly – about how you were successful in any of your previous positions.
6. What will I do to make this company reach its goals?
Immediately following your assessment of your prior, and relevant, work experience you should follow up with how you will be able to take this company into the future. What can you do to make sure they reach their goals, and tie in how your skills and past experiences can help them get there?
7. Where do I hope to end up in the future?
All companies want to know what your future plans are. It helps them determine how long you plan on staying with the company and whether or not it will be worth investing their time and resources into you. Knowing where you want to end up in the future will help you answer this next question as well.
8. How will this position help me get there?
Make sure you include how this job plays into your future. If you want to move up within the company and eventually reach management, tell them. If you want to one day run the show as an executive, your cover letter is the perfect time to show the hiring manager that you are motivated to reach your goals (and by extension, those of the company).
9. When did I realize that this is the career for me?
Your cover letter should tell a brief, but unique story as to why you want to do this kind of work. Why is this what you want to do and when did you realize that this was the best line of work for you? This allows employers a rare glimpse at what motivates you to succeed while setting you apart from the rest.
10. Why this company?
Hiring managers want to know why you have chosen this company to apply to. What exactly is it about the company that is attractive to you? What projects are they working on that you want to be a part of? Finish your cover letter by assuring the company that this really is the place you see yourself working in the future.
By Kevin Withers
Image courtesy of Orin Zebest via Flickr
Cover letter mistakes you should avoid
Nix these things and make sure your first impression isn't the equivalent of a limp handshake.
Avoid these common mistakes when writing your cover letter.
Your cover letter is like a handshake—it’s how you introduce yourself to employers when you apply for a job. Like a good handshake, you want your cover letter to be strong, succinct, and make a great first impression.
This isn’t a part of the job application process you want to skimp on, either. A cover letter allows you to go into more detail than your resume allows, explain gaps in your employment history or your need for a career change, and make a case as to why you would be a great fit for the position. And a great cover letter can open the door to scoring an interview and, ultimately, landing a job.
Make sure your first impression is a good and lasting one by avoiding these common mistakes below when writing your cover letter.
1. Overusing “I”
Your cover letter is not your autobiography. The focus should be on how you meet an employer's needs, not on your life story. Avoid the perception of being self-centered by minimizing your use of the word "I," especially at the beginning of your sentences.
2. Using a weak opening
When writing a cover letter, job seekers frequently struggle with the cover letter's opening. This difficulty often results in a feeble introduction lacking punch and failing to grab the reader's interest. Consider this example:
- Weak: Please consider me for your sales representative opening.
- Better: Your need for a top-performing sales representative is an excellent match to my three-year history as a top-ranked, multimillion-dollar producer.
3. Omitting your top selling points
A cover letter is a sales letter that sells you as a candidate. Just like your resume, it should be compelling and give the main reasons you should be called for an interview. Winning cover letter tips include emphasizing your top accomplishments or creating subheadings culled from the job posting. For example:
- Your ad specifies: Communication skills
I offer: Five years of public speaking experience and an extensive background in executive-level report.
- Your ad specifies: The need for a strong computer background
I offer: Proficiency in all MS Office applications with additional expertise in website development and design.
4. Making it too long
If your cover letter exceeds one page, you may be putting readers to sleep. A great cover letter is concise but compelling, and respects the reader's time.
5. Repeating your resume word for word
Your cover letter shouldn't regurgitate what's on your resume. Reword your cover letter statements to avoid dulling your resume's impact. Consider using the letter to tell a brief story, such as "my toughest sale" or "my biggest technical challenge."
6. Being vague
If you're replying to an advertised opening—as opposed to writing a cold cover letter—reference the specific job title in your cover letter. The person reading your letter may be reviewing hundreds of letters for dozens of different jobs. Make sure all of the content in your letter supports how you will meet the employer's specific needs.
7. Forgetting to customize
If you're applying to a number of similar positions, chances are you're tweaking one letter and using it for multiple openings. That's fine, as long as you customize each letter. Don't forget to update the company, job and contact information—if Mr. Jones is addressed as Ms. Smith, he won't be impressed.
8. Ending on a passive note
When possible, put your future in your own hands with a promise to follow up. Instead of asking readers to call you, try a statement like this: I will follow up with you in a few days to answer any preliminary questions you may have. In the meantime, you may reach me at (555) 555-5555.
9. Being rude
Your cover letter should thank the reader for his or her time and consideration.
10. Forgetting to sign the letter
It is proper business etiquette (and shows attention to detail) to sign your letter. Err on the side of formality, and if you need any help figuring out how to close your cover letter, consider these possible sign-offs.
However, if you are sending an email cover letter and resume, a signature isn't necessary.
If you need additional writing tips, join Monster today, so the experts at Monster's Resume Writing Service can help you impress employers with a high-impact resume and cover letter.