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How to Create an Effective Cover Letter

by Gina Poirier

In the human resources and job recruitment realm, experts have mixed thoughts about cover letters. For some hiring managers, a cover letter is an essential piece of the job application; others won't even glance at one. Nonetheless, a strong cover letter has the potential to catch a recruiter's eye so he'll take a long look at the rest of your application. Crafting an effective cover letter takes time, skill and thoughtfulness.

Be Personal

Show your potential employer that you have taken the time and initiative to learn about the company. Don't start your letter with an impersonal greeting such as "To whom it may concern." If you don't know who the hiring manager is for the position you're applying for, do a little research. Dig around the company's website -- or make a phone call or two. If the receptionist won't tell you whom to address a letter to, ask another current or former employee. Also avoid copying and pasting from other cover letters as much as possible. Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the specific position you're applying for.

Be Professional

Your cover letter showcases your professionalism -- in the way it looks and the way it reads. While the style and voice can be personal and not dry or robotic, your letter must be free of grammatical and spelling errors. Your writing should reflect the attitude and communication skills of a person that the company wants to hire. Avoid slang and other inappropriate language. The letter must also be formatted in a professional manner. Use a single, clear font like Times New Roman or Arial, ranging in size from 10 to 12 points. Lines should be single-spaced, with spaces between paragraphs. Margins should be about 1.5 inches, although you can adjust them slightly if your letter is long. The letter shouldn't be longer than one page, which restricts you to no more than a few short paragraphs. If you're not sure how to adjust formatting, start with a cover letter template, which most word processing software provides.

Make Your Case

Your main objective with a cover letter -- as with the rest of your application -- is to convince your potential employer why you're the ideal candidate to interview and hire. It is also the gateway to your resume and any other application materials. In a few sentences, explain how you found out about the position, why you're interested, why you're qualified and why you'd be an excellent employee. Don't make the mistake of arguing why you deserve the job (like discussing how hard it is being unemployed); rather, focus on why you and your potential employer could be a good match. Review the job posting carefully for key words that describe what the employer is looking for in a candidate. Restate those words whenever possible throughout the letter.

Highlight Specifics

The cover letter should highlight your qualifications and go into detail where your resume doesn't. For example, if you are a nurse and worked in a hospital setting for five years, discuss how that experience will directly affect your decision-making abilities in the position you're applying for. Try to imagine what the employer will be wondering about you. Your cover letter is your opportunity to explain any gaps in your work history, discuss your availability and bring up any other information that will set you apart from other candidates. Refer to the job posting for any information specifically requested. Close by thanking the recruiter and requesting an interview.

Get Help

Even professional writers need editors. Ask a friend or family member with relevant experience to help you edit and format your letter. It may also be beneficial to get assistance from a professional cover letter and resume service or a college advisory office.

About the Author

Gina Poirier has a professional background in nonprofit administration and management, primarily with youth development organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from the University of Washington and a Master of Public Administration from the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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