5 steps to writing a successful cover letter
If you're wondering how to write a cover letter, this easy-to-follow five-step formula offers helpful tips.
Caroline M.L. Potter, Monster contributor
When applying to online jobs, most folks put (or should put) a lot of effort into writing a resume that conveys their talents and breadth of experience. But these same people often drop the ball when it comes time to write a cover letter.
This can be a costly error.
If your resume gets you in the door, your cover letter is what prompts employers to answer that door in the first place.
If you're intimidated by writing a cover letter, don't be. Job-search expert Deborah Brown-Volkman has an easy-to-follow, five-step formula for cover letter success.
Tips to write a cover letter
- Cut to the chase: Brown-Volkman reminds applicants to begin their cover letter by clearly identifying why they're reaching out to a company. "Start by completing the statement, 'I am writing to you today because....'" Cover all pertinent facts, such as the position's title and location. Also include up front where you saw the ad for the position and who recommended you, she says.
- What I like about you: Brown-Volkman says that flattery will get you everywhere. "Next, complete the statement 'I like your company because....' Compliment the organization on what they have done right and what you admire about them. This will show that you've taken the time to get to know the company in detail," she says.
- What you'll like about me: Brown-Volkman urges job seekers to list their most vital qualifications. "Now, tell the employer, 'Here are relevant examples of work that I've done that match what you're looking for.'" Briefly discuss the items you want to showcase so a hiring manager can spot them easily. "Bullet points work well in making your accomplishments easy to read," she says.
- What else you'll like about me: Now, succinctly, personalize your letter. "Describe who you are and what makes you stand out from other applicants," says Brown-Volkman. "Discuss your soft skills and strengths and what you're passionate about professionally." Research the company's mission statement to see if your values match up and use similar language. "This is your last chance to say, 'Here's why I am a good candidate,'" she says.
- And in conclusion: In your closing paragraph, Brown-Volkman recommends expressing your enthusiasm for a position and an interview and to include a plan of action. "Make note of your contact information and state what the next steps will be," she says. "If you will wait for their reply, tell them that. If you will be following up, tell them when they can expect to hear from you." Don't drop the ball on your first promise to a potential employer, though. "Whatever you put down, make sure you do what you say you will do," she says.
Write Your Resume
A resume and cover letter are your tools to make an impact on a potential employer and secure an interview. There are literally hundreds of books on the market with good advice about how to write effective resumes and cover letters, each with a different opinion on style and content. The USC Career Center believes that writing a quality resume and cover letter for internship and full-time job opportunities begins with a targeted, one-page summary of your skills and experiences that convinces the employer you would be successful in that position. The goal is to make your materials so engaging that the reader cannot wait to meet you.
|To view the Career Center’s Guide to Effective Resumes, Cover Letters and LinkedIn Profiles, log onto your connectSC account. You will find it under the Resources tab.|
The most acceptable and readily used format for college students is the chronological resume, in which your most recent experience is listed first. How you choose to construct your resume, in terms of style, is up to you. For example, placing dates on the left or right or whether your contact information should be centered or on the left hand column is entirely your choice. The one rule to remember is that consistency is the name of the game. Always maintain the same style throughout your resume.
- Contact Information: Put your contact information at the top of your resume. It should include your name, address, phone number, and email address. If you plan to relocate soon it is acceptable to list a permanent address.
- Objective: For most college students seeking internships or entering the professional job market, stating an objective on your resume is not necessary. Instead, bring out your interests in a cover letter that is customized for the specific job to which you are applying.
- Education: List your degrees in reverse chronological order, with the most recent degree first as well as any study abroad experiences you may have. You may also include relevant coursework to highlight specific skills and knowledge. If your GPA is 3.0 or above, go ahead and list it in this section.
- Experience: List your most recent experience first and do not overlook internships, volunteer positions, and part-time employment. Use action verbs to highlight accomplishments and skills.
- Academic Projects: If you have specific academic projects that qualify you for the position, include them in their own section with detail on what you accomplished through the project that the person reading your resume should know.
- Additional Information: This section may stand alone under the “Additional Information” heading and highlight relevant information that may include computer and language skills, professional associations, university and community activities (including any offices held), and interests.
- Other Headings: Choosing to break out information such as interests and professional associations as separate headings is acceptable if relevant to the position. Sharing personal information (i.e. birthday) or attaching a headshot is not acceptable unless relevant to the position.
- References: Do not list your references on your resume. A prepared list of 2-4 references should be printed on a separate sheet of paper that matches your resume format. Bring a hard copy (or multiple copies, if needed) of your resume and references with you to the interview.
|International students: when applying to positions within the U.S., one-page resumes are standard practice. In the U.S., a curriculum vitae (CV) refers to a summary of qualifications and education that is usually more than one page and is used when applying to academic/faculty or research-related positions. Employers prefer resume formats which are minimal and easy-to-read. Personal information like birthdate are omitted to protect candidates from job discrimination as prohibited by federal laws.|
Resume guidelines that differ from non-U.S. resumes/CVs:
My Resume Checklist
- No spelling, grammar, or punctuation errors
- Makes clear, concise, and positive impression in 30 seconds or less
- One page (more if writing a curriculum vitae/CV for an academic or research position)
- Organized, easy to read, and has balance between content and white space
- Uses standard fonts including Times New Roman, Arial, Century, Helvetica, or Verdana in sizes 10, 11 or 12; do not use a font size smaller than size 10.
- Highlights skills and accomplishments that match key words found in the job description
- Quantifies accomplishments, if possible (e.g., how much $ raised, # of people served and % of time saved)
- Utilizes accomplishment statements
- Action verb stating what you did
- How you did it
- Result (quantify when possible)
- Cites relevant publications and presentations using the bibliographic style of your field
- NO GENERIC RESUMES!
|If your school (Marshall, Annenberg, Viterbi) has a career center, please check their website for potential industry-specific resumes.|
Create Your Cover Letter
Your resume is your marketing brochure. Your cover letter is your introduction or ‘executive summary’ to your resume. The main point of a cover letter is to tie your experience directly to the job description. Look at the description and be sure the words relate directly to those in your cover letter and resume. If the employer is looking for teamwork, highlight a team experience in your resume and be sure to include a team-related accomplishment in your cover letter. Your cover letter should be:
- Concise: Your cover letter should be three to four paragraphs. Any longer might lose the interest of the reader. We suggest the following format:
- Opening paragraph: Four or five sentences maximum. Mention the position you are applying to/interested in, briefly introduce yourself, and indicate where you learned of the opportunity.
- Body of letter: Usually one or two paragraphs. Share detailed examples of your qualifications for the position’s specific requirements. Many students choose to use one paragraph to discuss previous work experiences and another one to discuss academic experiences or leadership experience, etc. Choose whatever combination communicates your most relevant qualifications most effectively.
- Closing: Three to four sentences maximum. Summarize your qualifications, restate your enthusiasm for the position, and include your preferred contact information for the employer to follow-up with you.
- Clear: Articulate your qualifications in words that mirror what the employer provided in the job description. Do not try to impress with a long list of accomplishments. This is the executive summary, not the resume.
- Convincing: An employer will make a decision on your candidacy based on the combined letter and resume package. You have to articulate the connection to the job description and sell your skills. This is a competition. Why should the employer hire you?
My Cover Letter Checklist
- The words and action verbs in your cover letter should be reflective of the job description.
- Always be professional.
- Use proper grammar.
- Check for spelling and punctuation errors.
- Know to whom the resume/cover letter package is going. Call the organization to see if they can provide you the correct name and title of the person to whom you should be addressing the letter. Do not use “To Whom It May Concern.” If no name is available, address letter to the Recruiter or Hiring Manager.
- Use paragraph form, not bullet points.
- Do not copy and paste content directly from your resume to your cover letter.
- Do not be forward in requesting an interview.
- Keep to one page (no more than 3-4 paragraphs).
- When emailing a recruiter or hiring manager directly, use the body of the email to write two to three sentences that introduce yourself and mention to what position you are applying. Include your cover letter and resume as attachments. Do not cut and paste your cover letter into the body of the email.
- Submit cover letter in PDF format.
Know When to Use a Curriculum Vitae (CV)
If you are considering positions in academia (teaching and research), you are generally asked to provide a curriculum vitae (CV) in lieu of a resume.
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