The Structure of an Effective Cover Letter
[NOTE: Refer to Tips For Writing an Effective Cover Letter before you begin.]
Recent grads sometimes wonder if it is really necessary to bother writing the brief letter accompanying the resume. In fact, this part of the application process offers a valuable opportunity to score positive points with an employer. The cover letter emphasizes the candidate's ability to write correctly and persuasively, and to address a focused subject effectively and eloquently. The cover letter is not a restatement of the content of the resume in narrative form. A resume is an outline presentation of "what you have done". A cover letter, on the other hand, should reflect "what you have learned from what you have done", and how you intend to contribute the benefits of your skills and experience to the employer.
However, the goal of writing an effective cover letter is not a job offer. The point of the cover letter is that its content, when considered together with the resume, should be so interesting and so responsive to the open position in question, that the employer decides to move your application to the next step in the hiring process - an invitation to an employment interview.
Every cover letter has three basic sections, each with its own separate goal. This usually translates into a three-paragraph format. Often, however, a writer offers enough material to justify adding additional paragraphs for ease of reading and clarity of presentation.
Section I: CAPTURE THE READER'S ATTENTION
- State the purpose of the letter: a job, an internship, a summer position.
- Identify the position and how you learned of it.
- Now is the time to "name names" if this contact is a result of networking or a personal referral.
Section II: CREATE A DESIRE IN THE READER TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOU
- This is the power section - the make-you-or-break-you part of the format.
- Demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the position.
- Project an attitude of enthusiasm and excitement at the opportunity for direct involvement in your field.
- Show how your qualifications meet the position requirements and solve the employer's problem (i.e., a gap in service provision).
- Highlight your key credentials. (Sometimes a brief bulleted listing creates a striking contrast in format.)
- Make it clear that you identify with the profession and the employer, which is much different from identifying with the position only.
Section III: STIMULATE ACTION BY THE READER - NEXT STEPS
- Request an interview.
- Indicate the next step: "I will be in Atlanta during Spring break (or home for Christmas vacation in late December) and would appreciate the opportunity to view operations first-hand and discuss the position with you at that time," or "I will call you the week of February 12-16 to see if you might be interested in scheduling an interview," etc.
- If you have not included your contact phone number(s) with your return address at the top of the letter, then provide them here.