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Writing a winning cover letter

By Amanda McCarthy

After you’ve done your homework and gathered all the research you need, you’re ready to start writing. In this section I show you the essential elements of a cover letter. A cover letter has three main parts:
*Introduction. This includes the contact details and addresses, salutation and a subject line if appropriate, and the first paragraph of your letter. This contains a brief statement telling the reader why you’re making contact. Are you responding to a job ad? Which ad? When was it advertised? Have you been referred by a contact? Are you cold-calling?

*Body. This is where you rattle off your skills, abilities, qualifications, experience and achievements, highlighting why you want to work for the firm and how you can meet the company’s needs. Hold the recruiter’s attention by showing off how your experience and skills match closely to the job.

*Conclusion. This outlines the next step of the process and confirms your availability.

Don’t forget to mention your telephone number so that an employer can reach you to arrange an interview time.

Making an introduction
Ensure you start your cover letter with the following essential information.

Your contact details
Include your name, address, telephone number(s) and email address at the top of the page. If you’re putting your cover letter in the body of an email message, omit your contact details. On the other hand, if you’re sending your cover letter as an email attachment, use the traditional cover letter format.

Type the current date at the left margin, using the day, month and year, like this: 17 January 2005. Don’t write the date on an email cover letter. The date will automatically appear on the email.
Contact’s name and address
Make sure you address your cover letter to the right person and use his or her correct title. If no name is given in the job ad, ring the organisation and find out the key contact’s name — don’t automatically send it to the HR manager or managing director of the company (they may not be the best person). Also, check the correct spelling of both the person’s and company’s name, and if you’re sending an application by snail mail, get the address of the organisation right. Note that you don’t need to include the mailing address of the employer in an email cover letter.

Take care when mass mailing or emailing cover letters to hundreds of firms in your industry. Sooner or later, you’re bound to accidentally address your cover letter to Mrs Taylor instead of Mr Adams, or call the organisation by its competitor’s name. The trick is to be selective in the jobs you apply for. Tailor a cover letter to your selected organisation and proofread everything prior to sending.

In the opening paragraph, outline the main reason for establishing contact. Are you responding to an advertised vacancy? If so, where and when was the job advertised? Are you cold-calling and looking for job openings? Have you been referred by a contact?

The second and third paragraphs are the body of your cover letter. Tell the recruiter what skills, knowledge, experience, qualifications and personal attributes you can bring to the role. Why are you the best person for the job? What are your selling points? Showcase a few achievements that you're particularly proud of. Outline why you're interested in working for the company and highlight how you can contribute to the company’s success. Remember to tailor your cover letter to the job.

In the final paragraph, confirm your availability. Outline the next steps of the process. Don’t forget to include your contact details, so an employer can reach you to arrange an interview.
Yours sincerely
(Include your signature here)
No signature required if sending the cover letter electronically
[Type your name]

Avoid opening with generic lines such as ‘To whom it may concern’. If possible, use the appropriate person’s name, instead of addressing him or her as ‘Dear Sir/Madam’. Adding that little personal touch shows recruiters you’ve used your initiative. If you can’t source a name, simply try using something close to the title of the person you expect to receive it, such as ‘Dear Editorial Manager’ — if you’re applying to be an editor.

Don’t get too chummy with employers — avoid starting your cover letter with first names, such as ‘Dear Bob’ — a sore spot for some recruiters. Instead, stick to surnames (Dear Mr Up) in the salutation unless you’re on first-name basis with the recruiter. 
If the recruiter is female and you’re unsure of her marital status, don’t take pot luck and write ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. When in doubt use ‘Ms’.

Subject line
If you’re responding to a specific ad, include the job title in the subject line of the cover letter or in the email’s Subject field, and quote the reference or job number (if one is mentioned), like this:
RE: Marketing Assistant role (Ref No MA3456/07)
A reference number is simply a code that employers use to distinguish one job from another. Some companies advertise different jobs at the same time, so make the recruiter’s life easier by stating the job and the reference number in your cover letter. For government jobs, look for the vacancy reference number or job number contained in the job description or take a peek at the ad posted on the public sector job board. For more information on the public sector job listings, see Chapter 17.
For cold-call or speculative cover letters, use the subject line of the email to grab attention. Write a short, specific message that encourages the recruiter to open and read your email.

Employers often decide whether to delete or open emails by reading the subject line. Never leave the subject line blank. By doing so, the employer may accidentally discard your email or leave it unopened in his or her Inbox.

Why you’re applying
Start by telling the recruiter why you’re making contact. If you’re applying for an existing vacancy or graduate program, state in your cover letter how you heard about the opening. Was the job advertised in the newspaper?

Listed on a company or employment Web site? Displayed in an industry magazine? Always outline in your cover letter when and where the job was advertised.
If you’re sending an unsolicited cover letter, make it known to the recruiter what you’re looking for. Focus on your area of interest. If marketing is your preference, for example, highlight the fact you’re interested in product development or market research. Tell the recruiter what jobs interest you — choose roles from your repertoire of skills that will benefit the employer.

If you were recommended by a colleague, manager or your best buddy, make sure you name-drop in your cover letter, particularly if your contact is well respected and liked in the industry. Most jobs these days are heard of through the grapevine.

If you’re hunting for casual, part-time or temp work to make ends meet, be sure to include the following in your cover letter:

*Days and hours you can work. If you’re a student paying your way through university, or perhaps a backpacker touring Australia, remember that employers and recruitment agencies need to know when and how long you can work. State clearly your availability and whether you’re interested in morning, afternoon, evening, weekend, full days or vacation work only.

*Type of work you’re seeking. I know I may be stating the obvious but articulate the type of work you’re searching for in your cover letter. Suppose you’re scouting out jobs with an environmental non-profit organisation: State whether you’re interested in working in the field of research, training, supervising volunteers, or general administrative tasks and so on. Similarly, if you’re searching for temporary office work through a recruitment agency, state clearly whether you’re interested in all kinds of office administration positions — reception, secretarial, personal assistant, general office support or customer service — or whether you only want a certain type of administration assignment. After all, the recruiter won’t know unless you tell them.

*Preferred location. Indicate your location preferences, particularly if you want to work for a large retail chain or a company with multiple offices or outlets. Don’t forget to include why that office or location would be your top pick. Also, when you apply for jobs through a recruitment agency, put down whether you’re interested in working in the central business district or in the suburbs. It’s also helpful to mention whether or not you have your own transport.

Building the body
The body of your cover letter needs to be two or three paragraphs long. This section is the guts of your cover letter, where you flesh out the following.

Reasons for joining the company
Make a connection with the recruiter straightaway by indicating your reasons for wanting to join the firm. Think about the company and what makes it stand out. Aspects you could mention are the firm’s reputation, client base, culture, development opportunities and work challenges offered. If you’ve done your research this line is a cinch.

Demonstrate why you’re the best fit, outline what you can do for the company and why they’d be mad not to take you on board.

Reasons for leaving your current job
Tell the recruiter your reasons for wanting to move on from your current job and outline what attracted you to the position in the first place. Perhaps you’re in a dead-end role with limited progression, the organisation you’re working for is going through a restructure, or you know your job back to front and need a change. If you’ve been laid off due to poor performance, or had a gutful of your boss and said good riddance, you’re better off keeping quiet until the interview. Of course, even then you’ll need to use as much tact as possible in explaining your reasons.

Reasons for pitching for the job
You’ve got 30 seconds to convince the recruiter you measure up and are the best person for the job. So, what are you waiting for? Sell your strong points, give an overview of your past and tailor your cover letter to the job. To pull it off, firstly you need to find out what’s required to do the job. Read the job description (if there is one) or advertisement for clues. Most ads mention what they’re ideally looking for in a candidate. Next, think about what skills, qualifications, knowledge and experience you have (which relate to the job) and incorporate this into the body of your cover letter. Be sure to add a bit of your own personality into your cover letter too.

Highlight your career achievements
Show your potential on paper by highlighting a few of your top achievements. Convince the recruiter of your qualities and talents. Demonstrate the fact you’re a mover and a shaker who has what it takes to do the job. Refer to Chapters 4 and 5 for more on highlighting your achievements.

Confess any career gaps
Fill the recruiter in with what’s been going on by addressing any unexplained gaps in your work history. For example, if you been trotting around the globe or perhaps taking time off to study, it’s important to keep the recruiter in the loop. On the other hand, don’t volunteer information which may come across negatively. Refer to Chapter 6 for more on how to paste over career holes.

Reaching a conclusion
The conclusion wraps up the letter and outlines your next action.

Outlining the next steps of the process
In your closing paragraph, indicate that your resume is attached, thank the recruiter and clarify the next step of the process. For example, be blunt and make reference to the likelihood of an interview — indicate when you’re available and that you’d love the opportunity to discuss the position further. If you’re writing a speculative cover letter, you may want to end with a promise of a phone call or an email within the week.

Never promise something in your cover letter you can’t deliver. If you mention in the closing paragraph that you plan to follow up by phone or email at the end of a week, diarise the date and do it.

Ensuring you’re contactable
Make sure you put down a contact number in your closing statement, so an employer can reach you to arrange an interview.

Signing off
Sign off your cover letter with ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’. Use ‘Yours sincerely’ if you have addressed the letter to a particular person; use ‘Yours faithfully’ if you don’t have a contact name. Type your name on a line at the bottom but leave space for your signature if you’re sending a hard copy of the cover letter. For electronic cover letters, you don’t need a signature. Use ‘Enc.’, meaning ‘enclosure’, to let the recruiter know your resume is attached.

Excerpted with permission of the publisherJohn Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd from Australian Resumes for Dummies, Copyright 2008 by Amanda McCarthy. Avaliable from all good booksellers from RRP $39.95

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Published: 18 April 2008

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