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How to Write Cover Letters

I. Purpose

The purpose of a cover letter is to introduce yourself to an employer. In the letter, you must show the employer why he should read your resume and want to interview you. Always include a cover letter when sending someone your resume.

II. Writing Style

Cover letters are opportunities for you to display your ability to communicate effectively. In order to do so, follow the accepted rules of formal business correspondence. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Keep the letter short and clear.
    Cover letters rarely get more than 20 seconds of a reader's initial attention. Therefore, it is important to write clearly and briefly so that your point will register with the reader.

  • Write in perfect, complete, sentences.
    Show off your command of the English language by using correct sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation.

  • Avoid using contractions.
    For example, write "cannot" instead of "can't". Write "do not" instead of "don't".

  • Avoid starting every sentence with the same word.
    Especially, do not start too many sentences with the word "I".

  • Make sure that your resume reads comfortably.
    Reword sentences and paragraphs that do not "flow". Use a Thesaurus to help you avoid repeating words.

  • Check your grammar and spelling.
    Use the spell-check function on your word processor, but do not forget to perform a manual check. Word processors do not catch all mistakes, and will not warn you if a correctly spelled, but incorrect word is used. If at all possible, have a friend read and check your letter.

  • Be upbeat.
    This really goes without saying: Be positive. Show enthusiasm about the job.

  • Customize each letter for a specific employer.
    Write a unique letter for each position that you apply for. You may copy portions, but no two cover letters should be identical. Include information unique to the employer that you are approaching. If possible, show that you know something about the company.

III. Components

Although cover letters are written in many different styles, they all generally follow a fairly standard format:

  • Header.
    Specify your contact information at the top of the page. Include your mailing address, telephone number, e-mail address, etc.

  • Salutation.
    If at all possible, address the letter to an individual using his formal name (Dear Mr. Jones). Even when you are responding to an ad that does not specify a company or contact name, avoid using the salutation "To Whom It May Concern". Although this phrase is not incorrect, a better choice of salutations would be "Dear Sir/Madam".

  • First paragraph.
    Identify the position for which you are applying. Be as specific as you can. ("I'm interested in applying for the Engineer VI position.") This is important since the employer may be in the process of filling several different positions. Do not make the employer guess which position interests you. Also, indicate how you learned of the job opening (friend, newspaper ad, CivilEngineeringJOBS.com web site, etc.).

  • Second paragraph.
    Highlight your special qualifications. Identify unique attributes that may be of interest to the employer. Draw attention to important information from your resume, but avoid restating your resume. If certain skills are mentioned in the ad as required or desired, and if you possess those skills, be sure state this in your letter.

  • Final paragraph.
    Ask for an interview. If you are from out of town, let the employer know if you are already planning to be in the area during a certain time period.

  • Closing.
    Close your letter with "Sincerely" or "Very truly yours" and sign above your typed name.

IV. The Document

  • Paper.
    Letters should be typed or printed on a heavy, good quality 8.5"x11" paper. Avoid colored and patterned papers that do not photocopy well. Slightly off-white paper is always a safe, professional-looking choice. If possible, use the same type and color of paper that you have used for your resume.

V. Miscellaneous

  • Record keeping.
    Keep copies of all cover letters that you send out, so you can refer to them if you are invited to interview. They will also serve as good references for cover letters you may need to write in the future.

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