In last week’s Help Desk Advisor column, I shared with you some of my rules of thumb for writing good resumes. When you’re looking for a new job, you need a cover letter that’s as good as your resume. Whether you submit your application via snail-mail or e-mail, the cover letter counts. This week, I’ll explain my straightforward approach to writing cover letters.

Yes, you need a cover letter
First let me address the myth that nobody looks at cover letters any more. Every single hiring manager I’ve ever asked about cover letters tells me the same thing: They read the cover letters. They consider the cover letter to be just as important as the resume. And they expect the cover letter to be free of errors.

If you need persuading, here are some of reasons why you should always include a cover letter with your resume. The cover letter:

  • Eliminates any doubt about the position for which you are applying.  Your cover letter should clearly state the job title or the reference number of the position that prompted you to apply for work. Human resources personnel and hiring managers are people who can make mistakes. Spell out your intentions so they don’t have to guess.
  • Allows you to customize your pitch to the hiring company.  If you know the name of the company advertising the position, find out as much as you can about that company. Then use the cover letter to “show off” your knowledge of their operations.
  • Extends your resume.  Got so many accomplishments you can’t fit them all in your resume? Save a few of those bullet points for the cover letter.
  • Shows off your personality.  For most IT jobs, the ability to communicate in writing is just as important as your technical skills. Use the cover letter to demonstrate that you can do that well.

The cover is the same when you apply via e-mail
Whatever you do, don’t assume that you don’t need a cover note just because you’re applying for a job via e-mail. It is safe to assume that your e-mail note will probably be printed along with the resume you attach. So use the same cover letter in your e-mail transmittal note that you’d use if you were snail-mailing your resume.

Keep it super simple (KISS)
When I help friends and colleagues edit cover letters, I recommend the same, simple formula every time. My two golden rules are: Always mention the position for which you’re applying, and try to keep the body of the letter to three paragraphs.

Figure A shows a sample of my standard cover letter for someone applying for a position called senior support analyst.

Figure A
Your cover letter should be short, to the point, and easy to read.

What are the ingredients for your cover letter?
Let’s take a quick tour of the core components of a good cover letter:

  • Date:  Always use the current date.
  • Address:  Leave a few blank lines under the date, and then enter the address exactly as it appears in the advertisement to which you’re responding.
  • The Re: line:  I like using a Re: line with the job title or the reference number. That way, the resume screener can tell at a glance which position you are interested in.
  • The opening salutation:  If the recipient of the letter is named, use “Dear Mr.” or “Dear Ms.” and then the person’s last name in the opening salutation. If the recipient isn’t named, use “To whom it may concern.” Note: Use a colon at the end of the salutation, not a comma or a period.
  • The first paragraph (why you’re writing):  In the first paragraph, state why you’re writing, and include the job title and/or reference number. (Yes, even though you referred to it in the Re: line, repeat it in the first paragraph.) State that you’re including or attaching your resume. Mentioning the source of the advertisement (local newspaper or Web site) is a nice touch, because employers like to know how you found out about them.
  • The second paragraph (why you’re qualified):  When you write the second paragraph, speak to the qualifications that were listed in the advertisement for the job. If the job requires a certain certification and you have it, say so. List a few of your accomplishments that illustrate what a good fit you are for the position.
  • The last paragraph (how to reach you):  Yes, I know that your phone number is on your resume, but go ahead and repeat it in the last paragraph.
  • The closing salutation:  It doesn’t hurt anything to be polite. Use a sentence like “Thank you for your consideration.” before signing off with “Sincerely,” “Sincerely yours,” or “Very truly yours.” Whatever you do, don’t use “Thanks,” as the closing salutation—tacky!
  • The signature line:  I see a lot of cover letters in which the author has left no space for his or her signature. The rule of thumb is to press [Enter] four times after the closing salutation before you type your name. That’ll give you plenty of room for your signature.

Perhaps the most important thing I can tell you about writing a cover letter is to relax and have fun when you write it. Consider the cover letter as your own little commercial lead-in to your resume.

Of course, be sure to spell check the document before you send it out. While a well-written cover letter can attract attention to your resume, a sloppily written cover letter may cost you the interview.

Take a letter

To comment on this column, or to share your own advice for writing cover letters, please post a comment or write to Jeff.


Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays

Subscribe to the Developer Insider Newsletter

From the hottest programming languages to commentary on the Linux OS, get the developer and open source news and tips you need to know. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays