When I lecture on how to write a resume I often tell my audience:
There are two rules about writing resumes. The first is that there are NO rules…only guidelines, recommendations and suggestions. The second rule is…when in doubt, see rule 1.
The important point I try to get across is, much like anything you do in life, there are many ways to do things properly and effectively without being bound to a tight set of rules.
The same holds true for cover letters. There are no rules. But, unlike resumes, where there are a lot of standards and normal conventions, there are very few for cover letters. In this post I’ll try to cover the ‘guidelines’ and give you some suggestions, but don’t misinterpret them as rules.
Tell me who and what you are (1 sentence)
The biggest hurdle for most cover letters is getting past the fluffy writing and really focusing on ‘putting yourself in a box’. Recruiters and managers like to be able to visualize you quickly. The cover letter has to tell me first who you are (“Susan Smith”) and second what you are (“Registered Nurse”) before you’re past the first sentence. There has to be NO question about your role. So avoiding vague job descriptions and company titles (“Associate”) that are meaningless or unimportant. If a friend has referred you, it might be appropriate to refer to that person very early in the cover letter. Oh…be brief! Just a sentence (or two) here, or it might just be a 1-line header under your Contact Info.
Tell me about a relevant skill or talent (paragraph 1)
You need to provide a brief background and then identify a key skill, attribute, or experience that would be of interest to me (not to you) relevant to the job posting you are applying for. Tell me how this talent benefited a prior client or was important in your professional development. Use a STAR statement or two if you can. This is a modest sized paragraph, but make sure you give the best, the strongest, the most compelling info in the first sentence of this first paragraph.
Tell me about ME and MY situation (paragraph 2)
This is a time to expound on your knowledge of my firm and the challenges/successes that are relevant to the job or business opportunity. You need to be specific and ‘in-depth’. Don’t just pull info off of my website or write about the latest news-worthy chatter from the nightly news, but show a clear and knowledgeable grasp of my business needs.
Tell me how you can apply your skill to my situation (paragraph 3)
This is the “connect the dots” section. Expand on how step 2 applies to step 3…expand on the benefits of your talents in my organization. If I can’t see a “fit” between your skills and my needs, I might not keep reading. This first sentence in this last last paragraph must entice me! I must be honestly intrigued to find out more about you.
Tell me how you will reach out (1 sentence)
Sometimes this is the “ask for a meeting” part of the cover letter. Tell me when you’ll contact me and how. Or ask me to initiate the communication. The point is…ask or tell! Don’t just let the cover letter end without reaching out.
Wrap it up with a “Sincerely” or “Thank You” followed by your signature (if a paper copy is used) and your name/contact info if it wasn’t already provided on the top.
So, what does this all look like? Is there a standard template or layout? The format of a cover letter is as varied as the format of resumes, so no. But check out this link to see a sample of a very simple one that I like: Sample_Cover_Letter
Bottom line: With a cover letter you need to frame yourself quickly…name, title, one role, one expertise. Tie in your talent to how you’ve solved other people’s problems, tell me about my firm (show you really researched, not just snagged info from the Web), talk about how your skills and my job needs are a match, and then ask to follow-up. Don’t get hung up on formats, but stick with one page and let it resemble (font, margins, etc.) your resume.