A cover letter is your opportunity to package and present everything you have to offer that is relevant to the employer in a format that brings items together in a way that a resume cannot. Each letter MUST be targeted to a specific job.
The letter should be addressed to a person. In the very few instances where you cannot find a person’s name, it’s best to use a title. Avoid “To Whom It May Concern” or other vague salutations unless the application instructions tell you to use that.
A cover letter also serves as a writing sample. Employers read cover letters. Think of it this way, if you can’t write about yourself—a subject about which you are the undisputed expert—in an articulate and compelling way, how can you write something for a client or an organization?
In general, cover letters should be 3-4 paragraphs and no longer than one page total. Each paragraph should have a main theme, whether that is a specific set of skills, type of experiences, or something else. The letter should flow easily from one paragraph to the next and be a logical presentation of why you are the natural candidate for the position.
Why them (1 paragraph). Tell what it is about the job and/or organization that interests you (e.g., the mission, focus/scope of work, reputation, projects or products, etc.). This is the most targeted paragraph of the letter.
Why you (1-2 paragraphs). Package your experience/background/skills in a way that addresses exactly what the organization seeks in candidates. Two paragraphs are for two distinct ideas (e.g., one paragraph for academic background and another for professional experience, one paragraph for research experience and the other for remaining experience, etc.).
Next step (1 paragraph). Talk about how you will follow up (e.g., you will call within the next few weeks or something to that effect). Don’t include this if the job description says no calls. Adding a summary statement and restating your interest in the position works here as well. End with a thank you: “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
Remember to address all of the qualifications that you have that the organization wants. Go through a job description and highlight the key skills, especially those that are repeated to ensure you’ve covered everything. Use the language from the job announcement throughout your cover letter (and resume) to demonstrate the relevance of your experience and your understanding of what the organization wants. Never mention anything negative or say you don’t have a skill/experience (such as “Although I haven’t…). Be concise and make your point succinctly and directly. Proofread to ensure no mistakes. Don’t forget to sign your letter.
At times, an employer will ask for salary requirements as part of the application. Don’t give a number. You don’t want to price yourself out of the competition by listing something too high nor do you want to undersell yourself. Instead, you can write that your salary requirements are negotiable or that you are sure that they offer a competitive package and look forward to discussing the job in further detail (or something to that effect).
Remember, a cover letter might help you get an interview, but not the job. The interview is the vehicle for getting the job.
If you are e-mailing a resume and cover letter, you can put the cover letter in the message section of the e-mail itself. You could attach it, but then you’d need to include some type of message in the body of the message, which is redundant. Format the cover letter exactly like a regular cover letter, with your return address; the date; the recipient’s name, title, organization, and address; the salutation (“Dear Mr./Ms. X:”); the letter; the closing (“Sincerely”); your name; and then “Attachment” below (to indicate that you’ve attached your resume). Of course, you should follow directions if an employer requests a specific way to send your cover letter and resume.