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The Perfect Way to Introduce Your Resume
By Lancelot Larsen
"The purpose of the cover letter," a wise man once said, "is to get the resume read; the purpose of the resume is to get an interview." It is also believed by some resume experts that most cover letters never get read. They are more a formality. They get skimmed and tossed aside. In any case, be prepared. Submit a cover letter with your resume. Almost all resumes without cover letters are declined whether or not your cover letter is read.

Your cover letter is the greatest hits of your resume. You want to select all the best things from your resume and package it into your cover letter in a way so as to make the employers think that they are hearing all the songs they want to hear without sifting through the archives.

Your cover letter is also your opportunity to say everything that can't be said in the resume. It is here where you can tell the employer why you are looking for work, why you moved to another state, or why you had not worked in several years.

Before you write your cover letter, remember to keep it to one page. Busy employers and recruiters will not read text that sprawls longer than three-quarters of a page. The strength of your cover letter is in the detail you provide and the language you use. Take your time. Be yourself and professional, but don't be too informal or send something that reads like a computer program spit it out of your printer. Charm the employer with your personality as well as your skills.

Make sure the general look of the cover letter matches the resume. Your name and contact information at the top should appear exactly the same as it is on your resume. While the font size doesn't need to be consistent between your resume and cover letter, it's essential that the font type is. If you use a 10.5 font size in your resume to accommodate all your experience to one page, you don't need to make the employer squint unnecessarily when reading your cover letter. The margins should be the same for both documents and justify your text. It should have a block style. Write the date at the top left, use one space below, and then (one below the other) write the contact name, his/her title, the company name, the address, and the city, state, and zip code.

One or two spaces below the address, write "Dear Mr." or "Ms." followed by the last name and a colon. Never use the first name, as it's too informal for your purposes. If you don't know the name of the person you need to address, write "Dear Hiring Manager" or the like. You can use "Dear Sir/Madam," though it's considered overused. "To Whom It May Concern" can be considered slightly impertinent by some personalities. You'll go a lot farther with a name, but you can only do what you can do if it's simply not available.

First Paragraph
When writing a cover letter, view it like pieces of real estate. The prime real estate is the opening paragraph and the top third or half of the second paragraph. You should have three sentences in the first paragraph.

In the first sentence of the first paragraph, you should state who you are and why you are writing. If someone were to pull you aside and ask you to answer who you are as a professional and give an answer in one second, your answer should be in the first sentence of the first paragraph. Follow that thought with why you are writing (looking for opportunities with the company or applying for a specific position).

The second sentence should be a snapshot of what you will bring to the employer. Definitely use "bring" or "offer" to start off the second sentence.

For the third sentence, open it with a brief mention about why you are looking for work (new challenges in the same career or a change in careers). Follow that thought with what you are doing: Presenting your resume for review.

While this is the standard approach, feel free to mix it up depending on the circumstance. If you are applying for a specific job opening, you might want to add a line or dedicate the second sentence to why you are interested in that job. You can also communicate this at the beginning of the third sentence.

Second Paragraph
Of course, this is the most important paragraph and the most challenging to write. It is here were you want to sell yourself and summarize your experiences and skills without cut-and-pasting from your resume. Remember that the top two sentences are the most critical (your prime real estate). Assume that the employer might only read the top part of this paragraph and skim or skip the rest. So, start the second sentence off with a bang.

Typically, if you are looking for work in the same field, you'll want to start it off with what you are doing now (or most recently) and tell the employer what skills you provide your current employer.

If you used to work in a bank and now work in a hospital, but want to go back to working in a bank, you'll want to mention what you are doing now at the end of the second paragraph. This is a good idea because you want to play up your banking experience up front where the most attention will be. You can finish the paragraph with a casual mention about what you are doing now. No need to belabor the point if your current position has little or nothing to do with where you want to go.

Moreover, in the second paragraph, you'll want to list all your best and most relevant accomplishments from your current and/or previous places of employment (and internships and volunteer work, if necessary).

If you are responding to a posted job, the second paragraph should reflect what the position requires as much as possible.

Just remember that your cover letter is a way of telling the employer what you can do for them. Do not write it like a biography.

If you have a lot of skills and accomplishments to list, it wouldn't hurt to bullet them for clarity.

Always mention any shining moments of glory in your career. If you oversaw a multimillion-dollar transaction for Singapore Air, mention that in the second paragraph of your cover letter. Even if you have a strictly retail background and just got your MBA and want to work for Charles Schwab, it won't hurt to mention how you helped win the Reader's Advantage sales contest for your Barnes and Noble outlet.

Third Paragraph
Depending on your situation, you could or could not do with a third paragraph. While you want to submit a substantial cover letter, know that employers pressed for time in reviewing submissions will appreciate a short letter. Also, more than likely, your cover letter may not get read completely, so be mindful as to its length. As a rule, the third paragraph is a good way to summarize your skills indirectly stated in the second paragraph and lead into the conclusion. Two solid sentences that clearly state your managerial, communication, interpersonal, and negotiation skills (or your capacity for being detail-oriented or providing a strong work-ethic) will suffice.

If you are a student or recent graduate, you may want to use the second paragraph for your work experience and the third paragraph to discuss how your academic achievements will benefit the company. This will help if you don't have a lot of experience to complete a substantial second paragraph.

You can also use the third paragraph to state things that you want the employer to know: relocations or gaps in work history. Foreign professionals can use this paragraph as a good, discreet place to mention citizenship, work permit, or visa issues.

Fourth Paragraph
This one should only be two sentences and is the least of your worries. Most employers will barely glance at this part of the cover letter. The first sentence should tell the employer that you are interested in an interview. The second sentence should thank the employer for reading your letter and express enthusiasm in awaiting their response. You don't need to provide a phone number or email address, since it should be at the top of your cover letter in the first place. The only time you would add anything else to this part of the cover letter is if you want the employer to know that you are keeping your search confidential. This should be stated before the "thank you" part at the end.

Ideally, write "Sincerely" and type your name three spaces below to allow room for your signature. "Respectfully yours" and "Best regards" will work as well. Use one space below your name and write "Enclosure" to refer to your resume. This will indicate good attention to detail on your part.

  • Write a list of the top five reasons why you should be working there and include that into the second paragraph of the letter.
  • If you are responding to a specific job, write out every requirement you meet and include it in the second paragraph of the letter.
    • If there's a requirement you don't meet, suggest how you can master it.
  • Research the company and learn about its goals and corporate culture.
    • Review company websites and brochures. Visit a library or career center.
  • Use positive, confident language. Avoid anything that sounds negative.
    • Never use "if," "but," "or," and "although."
    • Replace "would" with "will."
    • Never say "might."
    • "Offer," "Provide," and "Bring" should each be in your letter. It's the language that sells.
    • Don't use clichés and avoid wordiness.
  • Make sure your cover letter is not repeating your resume word-for-word.
  • Revise your cover letter for each submission.
  • Re-read your cover letter with the eyes of an employer.
    • Ask a friend to read it.

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