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Job Search Resources: Writing a Cover Letter

Finding and applying for your dream job can be a tedious and frustrating experience. This guide will help lead you through the process of finding and applying to jobs and impressing prospective employers.

Cover Letter Tips

A cover letter should answer a very simple question: "Why should I hire this person?"  If you can provide a compelling case you stand a good chance of getting an interview.

Do:

  • Write clearly and competently.
    You may have very impressive credentials or personal qualities, but if you don't represent yourself well on paper, you won't merit an interview.  Most employers are looking for careful communicators.  A cover letter is a business correspondence and should not be written in a format resembling an email or letter to a friend.

  • Include at least three paragraphs.
    The introductory paragraph should include who you are, how you learned about the job opportunity, why you're interested, and what makes you the best candidate.  In the body paragraph(s) you should give specific details of your qualifications and how they relate to the job.  The concluding paragraph needs to tie your cover letter together, reiterate your interest in the position, and specify what you will do to follow up about the position.  Don't forget to thank the reader for taking the time to consider your application.

  • Personalize your letter.
    Don't write one letter and send it to a dozen potential employers.  Cover letters that begin with phrases such as "To Whom it May Concern" sound like junk mail.  Take the time to research the correct individual or committee to whom you address the application materials.  Hiring managers can spot a mass mailing instantly, and nothing says "I don't really want this job" like a cover letter that has the wrong company name or isn't signed.


  • Address the advertised job.
    Job ads often include a list of requirements for performing the job or a description of potential employee qualities.  Show the company that you are paying attention: print out a copy of the ad and highlight all of the important words and phrases used to describe the position or the ideal individual for the job.  Use as many of those phrases as possible while specifically addressing the qualities mentioned.  Make sure you tell the company exactly how your qualifications and experiences will help meet their stated needs. Remember, the person who wrote the job advertisement is likely the first to see your application materials. Using words and phrases that match or resemble words chosen by the advertisement creator can increase the chances of you getting noticed.

  • Be direct.
    With hundreds or thousands of other letters to compete against, your letter must stand out immediately.  In the first paragraph, include the name of the company and the title of the position in which you are interested, then move on immediately to your specific qualifications.


  • Be specific.
    Include specific examples of past experiences and successes.  Don't state, "I am highly qualified for this job."  Instead, specify your qualifications and offer concrete examples of how those qualifications meet the company’s particular needs.  If you can, quantify your achievements to justify your claims (e.g., "I saved my last company $25,000 when I wrote a report documenting more efficient ways of counting paperclips.").  Focus on the attributes that make you different from other applicants.  What can you offer that is unique?


  • Be relevant.
    If you come from a ranch or farm family, it's great that you're proud of that, but if you're going to mention it you need to find a way to make it relevant to the position.  Working hard and taking pride in your work are important to an employer only if you are able to demonstrate that your work ethic can translate into you excelling at the advertised job.


    Similarly, avoid personal statements like "this job would be a great start for me." An employer is likely less interested in ensuring that you will enjoy or benefit from the job, and much more interested in learning how the company will benefit from employing you.


  • Proofread very carefully.
    You only have one chance at a first impression, so read your work carefully and without other distractions before you submit it.  Spell-check is necessary but not sufficient.  Unintended mistakes such as calling customers "costumers" or starting sentences with the phrase "the fist reason" or "I am qualified for this poison" almost certainly ensure that your application will not get a second look. Taking the time to carefully proofread your work can provide important evidence to your potential employer about your desire and ability to avoid costly mistakes and make good decisions.


  • Check your contact information.
    If you are planning to move back with your family after graduation or if you leave Bozeman during the summer, it is critical to provide the most up-to-date contact information to the employer.  If the employer is unable to contact you, then they can’t offer you an interview or the job.

Don't:

  • Repeat your entire resume.
    A resume is a medium for listing your education, qualifications, and employment history. A cover letter is the mechanism for explaining to your potential employer why your education, qualifications, and employment history are relevant to the job. As an applicant, your objective is to minimize an employer’s effort of understanding how your background fits the job criteria.  Simply re-listing your resume in sentence form does not achieve this objective and does not help the employer understand your qualifications. Remember, an employer may spend 1-5 minutes reviewing your resume and cover letter; that is all the time you have to catch their attention.

  • Overstate your qualifications.
    Be careful that you only claim qualifications you actually have; do not overstate your case.  For example, consider the statement: "Throughout my academic and business career I have gained a comprehensive understanding of the business process."  Comprehensive means "including all or nearly all elements or aspects of something."  Thousands of books are written every year on arcane nuances of business; very few people can claim to be experts on every single aspect of something as broad as business.  Making claims like this leads an employer to assume that you either don't know what the word comprehensive means or that you think too highly of your skills.

    Be very specific when describing your qualifications and employment objectives, and make sure that you relate your qualifications to the job description. A best practice for accurately describing your knowledge and skills is to relate them to the specific job description, rather than explaining their benefits in an abstract, general manner.

  • Focus on negatives.
    Stay positive!  You may not be the most qualified candidate for the job, but you must remain positive and present the best version of yourself.  Don't write, "It's true that I do not have much experience in this area."  If you start by admitting that you're not a great fit, the employer may not read about why you may nevertheless be an excellent choice.


    The employer can see that you may be weak in a particular area from your resume, so your objective is to impress the employer with the qualifications and experiences that you do have.  And if you don’t have the skills, knowledge or experience to directly address a particular job requirement, describe how your existing background can be used. For example, if one of the job requirements is experience with statistical analysis, you can describe how your experience with using Excel in specific classes and ability to learn on the job will help with attaining the necessary expertise to perform the statistical analyses.  It can be difficult to find a balance between arrogance and self-deprecation, but you should try to project confidence in your skills and abilities without appearing to claim omniscience.


  • Talk about why you need the job.
    Telling a potential employer that you are applying for the job because you need money or a resume boost is likely not the best approach for impressing them.  Your objective is to have the employer understand how you will benefit the company.  If you do that, you will have a higher chance of not only getting the job, but also getting a better offer.


  • Use absolutes, quotations, and clichés.
    If you write, "My university has educated me in all qualifications needed for this job" or "I would exceed any expectations of this position" you may sound overly ambitions, pompous, or like you don't know what the position will require.  None of these are signals you want to send your potential employer.  No one can do everything, but you need to indicate that what you can do, you do well.

    Using casual or clichéd expressions can make you sound unoriginal and thoughtless.  Phrases such as "I do good honest work" and “I get the job done” have a lot less meaning than a well-thought description of how your qualifications and experiences will help you meet the job requirements.  Every word has meaning, and you need to choose carefully to make every word count.  Strive for clarity and conciseness.

Subject Guide

Amy Bekkerman