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Preparing Your Cover Letters

Purpose | Writing the Letter a Paragraph at a Time | Writing Style | Electronic Resumés & Cover Letters | Links

Purpose

Although the cover letter is in many ways an important component of your application materials, it is one of the last items on your "to do" list when job searching. This is because you must research anyone to whom you send a letter by gathering all the information you possibly can before you write.

The cover letter accomplishes four goals:

  1. it introduces you to the prospective employer and tells the prospective employer why he or she should read the remainder of the letter;
  2. it explains your interest in the organization and demonstrates your enthusiasm for the position;
  3. it highlights and, to some extent demonstrates, why you would be an asset to the organization; and
  4. it explains what you are asking the employer to do next.

The cover letter should reflect a considerable degree of thought regarding why you are writing this particular employer. It should also spark the reader's interest so that s/he wants to review your resumé. There is no one perfect cover letter. The cover letter makes the claims and the resumé provides the evidence that the claims are credible. Spend some time thinking: What value do you have to offer? How will the employer be better off with you than they are now? Why do you stand out?

Writing the Letter a Paragraph at a Time

Your cover letter must and should be perfectly written. A single typo is enough to disqualify an applicant from any job requiring "attention to detail." A single awkward phrase can spell doom to your application for any position requiring "excellent written communication skills."

The good news is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with having your cover letter scrutinized by a friend, professor or OCPD staff member. In fact, asking someone to proofread your important written work is essential at most legal workplaces. Making a mistake in a cover letter, therefore, shows both a lack of professionalism as well as a possible lack of attention to detail or writing skill.

Address the Letter to a Real Person

  • Always find the name of the person to whom you should write. Never use "Dear Hiring Partner" or "Dear Madam/Sir." If the name is not in the position announcement, try the organization's website. If that fails, you can usually get it by just picking up the phone and asking: "Hello, I am sending a package to your hiring partner/internship director/office manager/whatever. Could you tell me their name please?" It does not always work, but it takes 30 seconds to try. And check the spelling of the name when you get it.
  • You will typically address them as "Mr." or "Ms." Do not guess gender! If you cannot find out, just use their full name -- Dear Kelly Smith.

Paragraph #1: Grab the Reader's Attention

  • If you are writing at the recommendation of someone known to the reader, say so. "John Waters from [wherever] suggested I contact you about ..."
  • If you are contacting the employer because, for example, you have recently read an article about their involvement in a certain type of law that interests you, let them know it.
  • Although it is a bit commonplace, it is always a good idea to let the reader know (briefly) who you are and why you are writing, so it is okay to begin in this way, too.
  • Let the reader know if you are responding to an announcement, asking for an informational interview, etc.
  • This first paragraph can be very brief (1-2 sentences).
  • Employers want to know why you are writing to them. Strive to be as specific as possible.

Paragraph #2: Explain Why You are Qualified for the Job

  • A basic recitation that you know what the employer does and how it relates to your interest is generally sufficient. The more you demonstrate your awareness and relate it to your goals, the better.
  • If possible, show and support your interest in the area where the employer is located.
  • Highlight the reasons (academic and experiential) that you are qualified for the position.
  • Use this paragraph to entice the reader to look at your resumé. It should not be a mere recitation of the resumé. Rather, it should emphasize and develop those areas of the resumé that make you a desirable candidate based on the needs of the employer.
  • Do not draw attention to your weaknesses by trying to apologize or explain them away.
  • Put your best foot forward and state your strengths in a positive, concise manner.
  • Blow your own horn, but do so in a professional manner. Do not be cocky.
  • Do not be conclusive. For example, if you want to let the employer know that you are a self- starter who needs little supervision, do not just say it -- back up the statement with obvious examples.
  • This paragraph showcases your ability to be an elegant advocate- in this case for yourself!

Paragraph #3: Propose the Next Step

  • Let the reader know if you intend to be in the area during a certain time period.
  • If you are not responding to a specific job announcement, indicate that you will call within a certain time frame to set up an appointment, to determine a convenient time for a telephone interview, or to confirm your plans to visit when you are in town. Do not presume that the reader will contact you.

Make your writing lively, but avoid being cute, avant-garde, or gimmicky.

PROOFREAD! PROOFREAD! PROOFREAD!

Writing Style

  • There are two basic formats to a business letter that you should be familiar with. In both, your address and other contact information appear at the top. This may be followed by the date on the right or left side of the page. Below that is the name and address of the employer and farther down is the salutation, "Dear…" Think about separating paragraphs with whole lines if you have the space. The closing should line up with the date, whether it is on the right or the left.
  • Keep paragraphs short. No more than seven lines, and preferably five or fewer. Vary the sentence length. None of the sentences should be very long, but you do not want a staccato stream of very short sentences. Try using the occasional sentence fragment. Like this. Or begin with conjunctions -- and, but, or.
  • Use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize a statement.
  • Use boldface type and italics sparingly. Consider re-writing your sentence if it does not provide the proper emphasis. Avoid underlining because the line is often printed too close to the word, reducing its readability.
  • Write in a friendly, conversational tone, and avoid stiff business-ese like "enclosed please find my resumé for your perusal" or "I am sending my resumé in regards to the above mentioned position." Forget all about how you think a business letter "should" sound. Do not use a thesaurus to replace good simple words with ornate and awkward language.
  • Be a real person, not an automaton churning it out by rote. Show some personality and enthusiasm.
  • Avoid vague statements -- specifics sell. A letter that could be sent to any employer merely by replacing the name of the company -- called a "broadcast" letter – can probably be improved with more specifics. If you are planning on a mass mailing, the broadcast format may be your best choice, but you should be aware that there are trade-offs between high volume and customization. It is much harder to create reader involvement with a letter that could have been sent to anyone (and probably has).
  • Think twice before using any adjectives or adverbs. A common mistake is the Roget Style of writing where a truckload of adjectives is dumped all over the letter. The reader is not going to think of you as competent and dedicated just because you describe yourself that way.
  • "Effectively" and "efficiently" are particularly weak -- and some people sprinkle them in their letters like confetti. What was so efficient or effective about what you did? How do you know? If you can answer those questions, then put that down instead. And if you cannot answer them, you are probably better off saying nothing.
  • If you start describing yourself as "well organized, proactive, and dedicated; a team player with excellent oral and written communication skills" or any other clichés, your letter may not be taken seriously.
  • What can you do for this organization? Try converting "I haves" into "you wants" – or "you do not wants" – if you can address a concern the employer may have and show how hiring you would eliminate it.

Electronic Resumés & Cover Letters

When sending an electronic resumé, remember to:

  • Include a cover letter and be sure to note where you found the ad.
  • Send the resumé and cover letter in one file. You can do this by writing or pasting your cover letter in the space before your resumé. You can also send your cover letter as an e-mail message with your electronic resumé as a file attachment.
  • Use the job title and/or job reference number as the subject of your message. Cite any relevant job numbers noted in the ad.

Links

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