What is a cover letter and why do I need one?
The cover letter is an introduction to your résumé and application, so use the letter to guide the reviewer toward the points you really want to drive home. If there is something in your résumé or application that you really want the hiring committee to see and take into consideration, drop hints of those things in the body paragraphs of your cover letter.
How should I format my cover letter?
Use a painstakingly proper business-letter format. This will demonstrate your seriousness and attention to detail, and it will give them the impression that you made the letter as perfect as you could before giving it to them. It is a preview of your potential as an employee—you do good work and you do not let it out of your hands until it is finely-polished. You are holding this letter out to them, in both palms, and saying respectfully, “I made this for you.”
Should I address my cover letter to a specific individual or is it acceptable to generalize?
Get a name—the right name—so you can address the reader specifically and properly. Research it online, or just pick up the phone, explain that you are applying for the job, and ask to whom, specifically, you should address this letter. “Dear Hiring Manager” looks lazy. “Dear Mr. Shanahan” shows that you took the time to find the right person, and that you care enough to make sure your letter gets the right person’s hands. You take responsibility to make sure of your own success. If that letter gets lost because the mail-sorter at their office does not know where to forward a letter addressed to “Dear Hiring Manager” that’s your fault, not theirs.
Is there a certain style I should use for my cover letter?
Keep the letter straightforward and organized. Just like a five-paragraph essay, craft your cover letter in a deliberate, to-the-point manner, with a professional, I’m-not-going-to-waste-your-time spirit.
The first paragraph should provide your full name, which position you are applying for, and where you found out about the job opening.
For the second paragraph, briefly describe your educational background and how it connects to the job you are seeking.
For the third paragraph, briefly describe your employment background and how it connects to the job you are seeking. If you want to emphasize your employment background more, move it up to the second-paragraph position, and move education down to third.
For the fourth paragraph, explain how you, personally—think values, character, moral fabric—connect with the purpose and mission of the organization. Show them that you have an investment in what they do/believe, because that makes for a better employee.
For the fifth paragraph, thank your readers for taking the time to review your application, express your desire to meet with them to discuss the position further, and provide them with specific contact information (telephone number and email address) where they can reach you.
Is there a specific tone I should use in order to give the reader a good impression?
Throughout, demonstrate an enthusiasm that will strike your readers as sincere. Make them see that the prospect of working for their organization truly motivates, inspires, and excites you. You want to wake up in the morning grinning like a fool because you get to go to work at this place.
I want to make myself sound like a truly exceptional employee, but how do I do it without sounding arrogant?
Without coming out and saying it, make the readers feel that you have chosen this organization because you are the perfect match for what they need and what they do. It cannot look like a generic, one-size-fits-all mass-mailing. It cannot look like you wrote one letter for twenty different businesses, made copies at Kinko’s, and sent them out to everyone, in hopes that someone—anyone—would take you.
Do you have any final advice?
Make sure you have chosen the employer that is right for you. Honestly assess your abilities and the employer’s needs. Apply only after you have given the matter some thoughtful consideration. Do yourself and your prospective employer the favor of seeking an organization that matches best with what you believe and what you can capably offer as a productive team member.