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The purpose of the cover letter is to introduce you to a prospective employer or search committee and to explain why you are particularly suited for the position. The cover letter also gives you an opportunity to make connections, reveal some of your personality, and add explanatory notes or elaborations to your resume. The following specific guidelines have been excerpted from John Cunningham's book, The Inside Scoop:
1. Do not make your cover letter more than one page. If you are concise and to the point, this should not pose a problem. Longer is not better when it comes to cover letters. Remember, you are not the only person sending a cover letter for the recruiter to read. You may have taken essay tests in college where you figured the more you wrote, the more likely you were going to actually say something of value. That strategy does not work with recruiters when it comes to cover letters.
2. Sell yourself to the job description. The job description will normally include a list of the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA's) the person applying for the position must possess. Provide examples and illustrations (unique from anything on your resume) from your past when you have demonstrated those KSA's. Use action verbs like you did in your resume.
3. Proofread very carefully for typographical, grammatical and spelling errors. One little error could go a long way in showing the recruiter your attention to detail is lacking. Have someone else proofread it too, since it is often difficult for you to find your own errors.
4. Do not just regurgitate information that is on your resume. This is your chance to expand on what you feel (and hopefully what the recruiter will feel) is most important. You can expand on areas listed on your resume, but do not simply repeat. For example, if you listed relevant coursework on your resume, discuss in your cover letter projects or presentations that were a part of the class that would demonstrate relevant KSA's.
5. Try and address each cover letter to the specific person who will be reading it. If you do not know the specific person's name, give the company a call and try to find out. This phone call also gives you the chance to get your name into the minds of members of the organization. Make sure you are professional, polite and considerate no matter with whom you talk. Even if the person you speak with has little direct decision making power in you landing a job, he or she may have a lot of influence with the people who do. Do not use "To Whom it May Concern" at the beginning of a cover letter because chances are good it will end up not concerning anyone if you do write that.
6. Focus on what you can do for the company, not what the company can do for you. You can mention the benefits you will gain from them, especially if you are interested in an internship, however, the focus on the letter should be what you can do for them. It is a good idea to discuss facts about the company you learned through your research that were impressive (a smart way of patting the company on the back).
7. Send an original and creative cover letter with each resume. Do not try to create a universal cover letter.
8. Be enthusiastic about yourself, the position, and organization to which you are applying.
9. Be confident. You can demonstrate confidence in your writing style. Do not write statements like "I feel I would be an excellent addition to XYZ company." It sounds like you are trying to defend yourself. Instead write, "I would be an excellent addition to XYZ company."
10. If you mention in the closing paragraph that you will contact the recruiter, do not forget to do that. I doubt you will. If you wait five to seven days, that should be plenty of time for the recruiter to have received and reviewed your application materials. It does not hurt to take the initiative and be aggressive.