I will start by saying that the vast majority of cover letters are never read. Yes, that’s right. With recruiters and hiring managers sifting through hundreds of resumes, in the interest of time, most of them go straight to the resume. This is even true when the job posting specifically requests one. That said, you should write your cover letter as if it will be read because you have no way of knowing whether or not the person reviewing your application will be one of the few who do. And many decision makers will go back to read the cover letter if they like the resume.
Even those who will read your cover letter do not have the time or inclination to read a page-long essay, so keep it succinct, not more than half a page, and three, possibly four, paragraphs. Each paragraph should answer one of these three questions, in this order.
Where ‘you’ is the company. Introduce yourself and in two or three sentences, convey your interest in the company, the specific position, and even the hiring manager if appropriate, with enthusiasm. Your explanation should include information that shows you have done your research. Some hiring managers who do read resumes tell me that they have more than once rejected an applicant whose cover letter is so generic that it could have been sent for any job at any company. They want to see at the beginning that you’ve taken the time to distinguish them from the rest of the pack, to see why you think they are special. Keep in mind that this will be their first impression of you, and you know what they say about first impressions. At the same time, be careful not to be overly solicitous.
Where ‘we’ is you. In this section, tell the reader why you should be considered for the position, why you are special. Choose two or three of the company’s highest priority requirements and write a sentence or two that describe your achievements that will illustrate to the hiring manager that you possess the required qualifications. Don’t just tell them you have the experience. Show them by describing key accomplishments, your actions and the results. To keep your resume easily readable, your paragraphs should only be five or six lines long. Therefore, you may need to use two paragraphs for this segment, thus extending your letter to four paragraphs, but still only half a page in total.
This last paragraph will be the shortest and simplest, refers to the next step in the process, and may be the one area that is generic. It generally tells the reader that you want a chance to discuss your qualifications and indicates the next step to be an interview.
Most cover letters these days are actually the body of an email message with your resume as the only attachment. However, if a cover letter is specifically requested or you are delivering a hard copy, create a separate document and use the formal business format including your return address, the name and address of the person to whom you are writing, a salutation or greeting, followed by the body of your message.
At the end you want to include a complimentary close, “Thank you for your consideration,” and your first and last name.
For the salutation, it is polite to write “Dear Mr (or Ms) Brown,” rather than use their first name. If you do not know the name of the person who will be receiving your letter, exclude the salutation completely. Don’t use phrases such as “To whom it may concern,” “Dear sir or madam,” or “Dear hiring manager.” Similarly, don’t use the first name and the last, as in “Dear Mr John Brown.” Believe me, I’ve seen it all.