How to write the perfect cover letter

Posted on May 31, 2012

At Make Your English Work, we write and edit CVs and cover letters every day of the week, all year long. We also read the cover letters and CVs of applicants who want to work with us. We know what makes a good cover letter and a bad one, and how to create a perfect CV and cover letter that get attention, instead of going straight into the trash.

In this series of posts, we cover quick tips and standard rules, teaching you everything that you need to know to write a perfect CV and cover letter.

In our last post we covered the differences between a CV and a cover letter, and gave you some tips on how to present them. Here, we move on to step 3, which gives more specific details on what to include in your cover letter.

What to include in a cover letter

For a standard cover letter, first try to find the reader’s name or job title. Then, start your letter by writing “Dear (name or job title).” With a name, use a title such as Mr. or Ms. and the person’s last name. Using the first name alone is too personal, and using the full name sounds like you have just copied and pasted their name into a form letter. If you can’t find the person’s name, use “To Whom It May Concern.” It is most common to follow this with a comma (,) but some writers prefer a colon (:). In this greeting, capitalize all words.

Good:

Dear Mr. Affblatt,

Dear Human Resource Manager,

To Whom It May Concern:

 

Bad:

Dear Mr. John J. Affblatt:

Hello,

Dear Mr./Miss,

Dear Christine,

 

If you want, you can include a header with your details, or those of the employer, but this is really unnecessary these days, especially if your letter will be an email. The employer knows who they are and you will be giving your details in your attached CV, so to us, the header format is a bit of a waste of time.

 

One more point is not to go crazy with fonts. Spending hours choosing a “professional” font is a beginner mistake, especially if the font ends up being hard to read. Stick to the basics: Times New Roman, Calibri or Arial. Impress with your words, and not the font. Also, keep in mind that if you cut and paste your letter into an email, the font might be changed or lost anyway.

 

Do not hand-write your cover letter, or any part of your application, unless you are asked to. In some parts of the world, hand writing is required. Not in English-speaking countries.

 

The standard cover letter starts with an opening paragraph explaining why you are writing, where you heard about the job, who you are, and why you are a good fit. Here you can be general and provide a good overview of your experience and skills. Details will come later. Do not waste the reader’s time or lose their attention with long descriptions. Be clear, positive, and confident. You do not need to give your name. Do not start with “my name is.” Your name comes at the end of the letter.

 

In your letter, job titles should not be capitalized, but if the ad capitalizes them, you can also do so. It is often done even though it is unnecessary and you shouldn’t start by correcting your future employer’s grammar.

 

Your first paragraph should be about three or four sentences long.

 

Good:

I am writing in application for the general manager position at Fernando’s Bar and Grill, as advertised at jobsearch.com. I am currently the daytime manager at Suardo’s Italian pizzas, where I have been working for the past two years. I feel that my in-depth knowledge of the restaurant business, gained through experience in a variety of positions, as well as my management degree, make me an ideal candidate for the position.

 

Bad:

My name is Chris. I am writing to apply for a position with your excellent organization. I have a lot of in-depth experience in a similar capacity, and my winning personality, excellent attention to detail and overall understanding of the required knowledge are highly desirable. I think that if you would want to give me this position, I could do a lot to make things work better.

 

 

 

In your second paragraph, you can move on to a description of your experiences and what they involved, giving lots of facts and details. Do not spend too much time explaining what your experiences taught you or showed about your character. Give the facts and let the reader figure things out. If you have a lot of experience and skills, give them all and make things a bit longer, but do not fill up space with descriptions of your personal qualities or of what people thought about you.

If you received official recognition for something, mention it. Be extremely positive and confident. You have nothing to lose. No one ever turned down a good candidate for being too positive. Think about how great you are and tell the reader about it, but through details about your experience. This is no place for shyness or modesty.

 

Good:

After receiving a promotion to assistant department manager in 2010, I was able to apply my knowledge of management techniques and IT to solve problems with absenteeism. I introduced new procedures for sick leave, and moved the scheduling system online, which reduced absenteeism by 5% in one year. For my strong contributions, I was made employee of the month for three consecutive months.

 

Bad:

I later became Assistant Department Manager. I used my advanced skills and knowledge to deal with absenteeism, and was able to effectively and significantly reduce it by putting in suitable policies, which led to many positive responses from a variety of superiors. I learned a lot about proper management from my experience and my success showed my excellent scheduling abilities and deep knowledge of IT systems. I was regarded highly for my work, which I think was deserved.

 

If you have problems in your employment record that you think will be clear to the reader (new job every two months, long period of no employment or studying, potential problems with past employers, awkward information online), you may want to address that in your cover letter. This should only be done if you are certain that something will be a problem. If not, just leave any further issues to an interview.

 

If you do want to explain problems, do so clearly, explain what went wrong and how you have fixed it or will fix it, and move on. Don’t spend a lot of time apologizing, begging the reader to overlook things, or, worst of all, blaming others for your mistakes. Be honest, give the important points, and be done with it. If there is something you feel uncomfortable writing about, mention it briefly and perhaps be prepared to talk about it more in an interview.

 

Good:

At that point in my career, I felt that there was no opportunity to move forward professionally. My ideas about how my work should be carried out differed from my employer’s and I began having repeated disagreements with my manager. I left the company and, after discovering that my father was sick, took 6 months away from work to help him get through his illness.

 

Bad:

I found that the management at the company was doing things wrong, and no matter how much I complained, nothing changed. I was thus forced to quit. A family matter then took up my attention for 6 months. I am still as skilled as I was in the past and am certain that I can do a good job if you give me a chance.

 

If your work experience is not really connected to the job that you are applying for, try to highlight things that you have done that connect to things that you will do in your new job. You don’t have to stress the connection, but mention important points. For example, if you were a teacher and are applying for a position at a bank, mention your experience with maintaining records, interacting with parents, or planning and organizing. Think about things that your reader might find relevant and mention them. Again, do not apologize or beg for understanding.

 

Good:

As a bartender, I was responsible for keep track of stock, for which we used a personalized computer interface designed for the business. I had to log in orders, check stock at the beginning and end of my shift, and account for loss and spillage. At the end of each week, I went through the program with my manager, ensuring that everything was as it should be. I feel that my familiarity with keeping records and regularly updating a system will serve me well as a customer service representative at your bank.

 

Bad:

As a bartender I often had to interact with a computer system which is very similar to what is used in a bank. I regularly reported any unusual information to my manager, just as I would as a customer service representative. Even though I have no experience with banking, I think that this prepared me well for this position. I hope that you will give me a chance to try out my skills at your bank, which I would really appreciate.

 

Near the end of your letter, describe why you want to work for the employer and why the job is great for you. Again, give details. Look at the employers’ website and study the company. Google search them, as they will do for you.  If you are not familiar with the position, research what it involves and what is needed for success. This will take at most an hour of your time, and will greatly improve your chances of getting the job.

 

Mention how the things that you have learned connect to you in your cover letter. Employers want to hire people who like them and are fully prepared to work for them. They don’t care that you want to take on a new challenge or are enthusiastic about whatever company you work for. They want to hear what you know about them, why you are perfect for their company, and why, if they like you, they will be able to keep you for a long time and grow with you.

 

Good:

I am particularly interested in working as a sales representative for Top Sales. The company’s focus on personal interaction in sales and its adoption of new technologies in its revolutionary SalesForce system put it at the cutting edge of the industry. Its commitment to community initiatives make it a place where I could put my background in community service to good use. Its high conversion rates for 2011 and 10% growth are very impressive, as is the new CM Commitment program, which I feel I could contribute to, based on my past experience with reward programs. I also appreciate the company’s policy of promoting internally, which I feel has led to its success.

 

Bad:

I am particularly interested in working as a sales representative for Top Sales. As a cutting-edge company, it is famous for its excellence. I am certain that I could apply my skills and my positive attitude to do great things. I look forward to new challenges and would be happy to be a part of any of the company’s fantastic programs. This highly-regarded, prestigious organization is the ideal place for me, and I am certain that you will be impressed by my contributions.

 

Close by mentioning attachments, thanking the reader for their time, explaining how you can be contacted, even if this is clear from your CV, and stating what you expect will happen next. Be confident but not pushy.

 

If you don’t know the person, close with “Sincerely,” and your name, as well as your current job title, if relevant. Don’t go overboard. Keep things basic and standard.

 

Good:

Thank you for your time and consideration. Attached, please find my CV and three letters of reference. I would be happy to discuss the position in more detail in an interview. I can be reached from Monday to Friday at (phone number) on the weekends at (phone number) or by email at (email address). I look forward to hearing from you.

 

Sincerely,

 

Name

 

Bad:

As you can see, I would be a perfect fit for this position. I hope that I will hear from you as soon as possible, as I feel that I have a lot to offer. You can contact me any time. Once again, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your attention and please contact me promptly.

 

Kindest regards and well-wishes,

 

Name

 

Next time, we move on to step  4: what to include in a CV, which tells you how to write a winning curriculum vitae, also known as a résumé.

If you have questions or would like our help, leave them in the comments or send us an email. We will be happy to respond, and if you want us to write your cover letter or CV for you, check out our copywriting services, ask us to edit your existing CV and cover letter, or just have a careful proofread done.

If you’re not sure about our services, try them for free.

Have your own ideas on how to write a perfect cover letter? Tell us below.

One Comment

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