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Writing a Cover Letter

Always remember to tailor your cover letter to the individual job description!

When you have finished your resume, you have already done a big part of the work. However, this shouldn’t tempt you to repeat your CV in your cover letter, or to mail one standard letter to every company. Once more, you have to "sell yourself" and convince a potential employer that you are the right person to hire.

An average cover letter should be a bit shorter than one A4 page. Avoid lengthy and complicated sentences, too.

As we’ve said before: HR employees are busy people. They want to get the gist of your application as quickly as possible. The typical cover thus consists of three distinct sections – a shorter one both at the beginning and the end, and a somewhat longer one in the middle. For instance, have a look at this cover letter template.

The Perfect Opening

In the opening section, you typically state your reason for writing, the job ad that caught your attention, and the specific position. If you have spoken to HR on the phone or if you have a personal contact in the company, don’t hesitate to mention it (e.g. "Christina Suarez from your Marketing Department brought this job opening to my attention").

Sometimes, a little detail that demonstrates a personal connection to the company or that shows you know your audience can also be used as an opening anecdote. Example: "I have worked as a volunteer for your NPO campaigns since 2006. When I read last week’s New York Times article on the overwhelming success in raising cancer awareness, this spurred me to apply at your head office."

The Message in the Middle

In the second section of the letter, you explain why you would be a good fit. While you should not re-use your CV, you should briefly summarize your career (or education) first. Follow up on this with concrete examples of your "hard" and "soft" skills. They should all illustrate why you would be good at this particular job.

But don’t copy and paste from the ad or the job profile! Clichéd phrases like "I’m a great team player" or "I am a natural leader" won’t cut it. However, if you can really show your ability for team work or leadership, then go for it! You coach a volleyball team in your leisure time? This would be a neat example.

If you have any "red flags" in your career, you can briefly mention them at this point. For instance, you were unemployed for over a year, due to serious health issues, or you took off some time from work to raise your children. Thus you’ll explain mysterious gaps in your background and assure the company you’re now back in good health or ready to re-enter the workforce.

Also stress what you did do during such a "gap" period: You were a recuperating patient, but you took an online class, studying from home, at your own pace? Put it in your letter. You were a stay-at-home parent, but you organized a weekly playgroup and regular charity bazaars at your kid's school in the US? Write about it.

A Polite Ending

At the end of the cover letter, say that you’ll be in touch to enquire about your application. Express your desire for a personal meeting (i.e. a job interview), and explain where and when the HR department can best reach you. Don’t forget to thank them for their time and consideration, and to add your hand-written signature and/or full name.

In the case of an unsolicited application, writing the cover letter ("letter of interest" or "inquiry letter") is a bit trickier. After all, the company isn’t actively searching for someone with your background. Moreover, you don’t have the information from the job ad to guide you. Again, you may want to consult a career coach or an up-to-date handbook on US job applications.

Once you have formulated the perfect cover letter, this might lead to the desired result: an in-person interview. Read more about this last step to your US career in the following part. 

 

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