Employment Writing AdviceEmployment, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2006

Write the Perfect Cover Letter Every Time

Every day most of us write letters, and many of these letters are cover letters. A cover letter is a special type of correspondence. It accompanies another piece of correspondence that many times actually competes with the effect and content of the letter. That other correspondence is an enclosure or what is more commonly called today an attachment. It can also be a package.

Cover letters can accompany various kinds of documents: A resume or CV, a school application, a legal document, a manuscript, or an item we're returning to a store, Many writers think a cover letter is nothing more than a form letter, a template that simply announces the attached package or document(s). The enclosure or attachment is really what's important. To paraphrase Joe Friday from the old television series, Dragnet, a lot of people think a cover letter should only address the facts and nothing else. "Just the facts, please. Nothing but the facts," this policeman would say every Friday night.

A perfect cover letter, however, is a lot more than a template or a form letter. It's an opportunity. It is not a document that should just end up in File 13. A perfect cover letter communicates who you are and what you want or need. A perfect cover letter can ask for a response, make an argument, or deliver a great final positive impression. It asks the reader to make a decision. That decision can be to pick up the phone and call you for an interview, forward your college application to the Admissions Committee as highly recommended, solve a service problem or write a refund check, answer a question and get you to the right person, or acknowledge that a legal document has finally been correctly handled.

For all of these reasons, a cover letter is a special piece of writing and one that is far too often overlooked, simply dashed off, signed, and stuck in an envelope or clicked through the Internet via your e-mail account. You don't think of the impression you are making or the extra advantages a cover letter can provide you. When you need to write a cover letter, and we all write them, what techniques do you need to remember and apply? How do you write the perfect cover letter?

First of all, the perfect letter is brief, i.e., short. It shouldn't be more than one page and preferably a short single page, if possible. What does one page mean? It means 3 to 4 paragraphs. "Short" also means precise as well as concise. Each one of these 3-4 paragraphs has a special task. The tasks can vary a bit based on the topic, and the paragraphs can be exchanged one for the other Sometimes (very rarely), you can add another paragraph and once in a blue moon, maybe even one more for a very complex situation, such as the job of the decade for which you have tons of background and experience. But, do your utmost if you can to keep the words in your letter to one page. Why? Because this correspondence is still only a cover letter. It accompanies another document or series of documents that are the prime reason for your correspondence in the first place

A good cover letter is subtle and respectful, but it still makes its points strongly and clearly. It stays in the background, but is remembered. It doesn't run on and is never rude or hostile, or cute. It can argue, but does so judiciously and with verbal discipline, and unless absolutely needed, the letter always communicates gracefully and politely and expects a positive outcome.

A good cover letter also provides information – additional information that explains why you sent the attached document and what you want done with that document or for you because of it. There is a pattern of communication you can use to get this letter written quickly and successfully. There are specific tips to remember for each of the paragraphs in your cover letter.

Paragraph One: This paragraph states the reasons why you're sending the letter, i.e., what is attached and why. Be specific about the nature of the attachment, i.e., a resume and summary of publications or a patient's advocate form with a will. You should introduce yourself, state what is attached and why. For instance, if you are replying to a specific job position, you give the details of how you found the opening and the nature of the position. If you are forwarding a college application, you state that fact and indicate whether it is a packet of essays or just a formal application. If you are returning an item, you indicate what it is and when you bought it, and why it doesn't work for you. If you are forwarding a document, you state the title and why you are sending it. You then lead into Paragraph Two with a final sentence that previews your explanation of the problem, the reason why you need a refund, when you expect to start school, or why the position you've referenced is the one you really want to have.

Paragraph Two: This paragraph is where you provide the details and elaborate on the basics you provided in Paragraph One. Here you can summarize the issue, explain the problem, describe the history of the document, or summarize your background to support the interest you expressed in the position you're applying for in Paragraph One. Try to be brief, but also include as many precise details as possible. That is a challenge. As space allows, argue well for the circumstance that led to your contacting the addressee in the first place. This can be the longest of the four paragraphs because here is where you describe the situation or indicate your qualifications or give your reasons. This paragraph is also the one that, if necessary, you can expand to two paragraphs or at the very outside limits, three. If you do, shorten the other paragraphs. Remember that you only want one page!

Paragraph Three: This paragraph is where you make your argument for what you want done, i.e., get a phone call for a job interview, get admission into the ideal program or school for your education or career, get a document recorded properly, or have a consumer complaint addressed, i.e., a refund given or a warranty honored. This paragraph is where you can be a bit forceful, when needed, and indicate when you expect the task to be completed. I would not be forceful if the cover letter is accompanying an application. If that is the case, present your best reasons for getting the positive answer you want and stop and hope for that response.

Paragraph Four: This paragraph is a summing up paragraph. Here you reiterate what you want done, when you need it done, and why. Here is the place where you are firm, but very courteous, if you are trying to get a problem resolved. Here is the place where you are gracious and express kind words about a company or a school if you want a job or admission. Here is also the paragraph where you state your contact information, i.e., e-mail address and phone numbers, and express your absolute confidence that you will receive a positive response or action soon. You can also offer a final hope that your application will be positively received, if that is the reason for the cover letter. State at the very end also that if there are any questions or concerns, the recipient of course can contact you, and you will respond immediately.

So there it is – a formula for writing a cover letter that will 'cover' most of the circumstances you are likely to see when you are sending documents. A perfect cover letter is short, covers all the details of what is being sent and why, paraphrases the nature of the attachment(s) briefly, makes a laid-back sales pitch or delivers a courteous argument, leaves a final positive impression, and encourages an early positive response. If you keep these tips in mind and adjust them as needed for your own cover letters, you'll find that your letters will do that extra bit of communication for you. It's that communication you may just need to get a task done, a problem resolved, or an offer for a great job.
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