Published On : August 18, 2010
The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters
Professional written communication can make all the difference between a successful interview and a dead-end one; between a lasting career connection and a burnt bridge; between a graceful goodbye and a tense departure. The good news is that, first of all, most professional letters follow specific formats; and second, most are very brief and simple in structure. With the help of some guides and samples, you'll easily be able to craft communications that convey your intelligence, professionalism and detail-orientedness. Read on to find out how.
The goal of a cover letter is to grab the reader's attention in a way that'll interest him or her in reading your resume, as well as any other relevant documents you include with it. Thus, you'll want to open the letter with a greeting to the receiver by name – or a "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To whom it may concern" if you don't have the contact's name – and follow that greeting with a sentence that builds a personal connection with the reader. For example, you could mention the name of a mutual friend who referred you, or include a reference to a particular action or aspect of the company that inspired you to reach out to them (as opposed to other companies in the same sector).
Next comes a brief pitch: A description of the skills you can bring to a position with the company, a mention of specific achievements that demonstrate your proficiency in this type of position, or just a reference to personal traits that make you ideal for the job. The next sentence or two should establish what you expect the next step to be: If you have the person's direct number, you might say that you'll call him or her later in the week to follow up – or if not, you can include your contact info and ask for a follow-up from him or her. Be sure to close out your cover letter with a final mention of your eagerness to get in touch and start contributing as soon as possible. Overall, keep your letter short and to-the-point. If it grabs the right person's attention, you'll have plenty of time to discuss the details in person.
One thing that'll come in handy as you compose your cover letter is some background on the company – its main missions, goals, recent acquisitions and so on – so you can present yourself as a good fit for the company's specific situation. A few minutes on Google, and on the company's website, should get you the basic info you need. Proper grammar and punctuation are also crucial – many managers simply throw out letters that contain typos, as this indicates a lack of detail-orientedness – so take time to proofread and revise your letter several times before sending it off.
A variety of websites include sample cover letters, as well as examples of greetings, lead-ins, pitches, closings and other individual elements. One excellent resource is the How to Write a Cover Letter section on SusanIreland.com, which includes extensive examples of every aspect of a solid cover letter. Cover-Letters.com, meanwhile, provides a curated collection of more than 1,000 sample cover letters. You can easily track down even more with some quick Google searches for terms like "sample cover letters" and "how to write a cover letter."
Below is a sample cover letter, which includes all the essential elements discussed in the previous section:
Dear Mr. Smith,
Mary Johnson recommended I speak with you about your opening for sales manager. In your presentation at the Western Sales Conference last month, you mentioned that SalesCorp is expanding its wholesale operation into the Midwest region. This could be a great opportunity for us to collaborate, because my extensive network of contacts in the Midwest includes more than 1000 buyers, both domestic and international. These are professionals who know my name – and who listen to my recommendations.
Although I have submitted several applications within the sales field, I am most interested in working for SalesCorp. Please contact me as soon as possible so that we can nail down employment details.
As long as you include all the essential elements – greeting, opening hook, pitch, closing call to action and sign-off – you'll be in good shape. From there, it's up to you to present your case in a way that emphasizes your potential usefulness to the company and your passion for joining their team. If that passion is genuine, you'll be doing yourself a favor by letting it shine through in your phrasing.
Though business interactions don't always go the way you want (or expect), long-term career success is all about preserving good relationships with the people you meet along the way – no matter how disappointed you are in the way they treat you. So after an interview, a job offer, or even a rejection, sending a thank you letter can keep you on good terms with the person you spoke to, and leave the door open for future discussions.
A thank you letter follows an even simpler formula than a cover letter:
- A brief statement of thanks for the interview, offer, etc. – for example, "Thank you for interviewing me at SalesCorp. I was impressed with company's sales force, and with its personal approach to building customer relationships."
- An explanation of your current thoughts about this stage of the process – for example, "Our conversation gave me some good insights into SalesCorp's current needs. I'm confident that my ten years of sales experience, as well as my nationwide network of contacts, could prove helpful with the company's planned expansion into the Midwest region."
- A reference to the next step in the process – for example, "I look forward to speaking with you next week, so we can keep the hiring process moving forward."
After the closing statement, just sign off with a "Thank you," a "Warm regards" or another similar phrase, followed by your name. Follow this basic "past, present and future" formula – and, as always, keep your letter short and sweet – and you'll be very likely to make a professional impression.
As much as you might want to run straight out the emergency exit door and never look back, an ungraceful departure is likely to hurt your career in the long term – especially since you'll probably need a reference from the company someday. It's usually a good idea to speak with your boss in person before you file a formal letter of resignation. State your reasons tactfully but firmly, and focus on the positives rather than on your complaints. For example, you can say that you're ready for a change of pace or a different location. But if you've gotten a better offer from another employer, it's probably best to avoid mentioning that factor.
No matter how your boss reacts, though, stick to your guns – even if he or she makes a counter-offer. Remember your reasons for leaving, and also keep in mind that it'll be hard to ever fully regain the trust of an employer from whom you once threatened to resign; no matter how much he or she assures you otherwise. Thank your boss for the opportunity, offer to train your replacement, and file your formal notice letter immediately – giving at least two weeks' notice if at all possible.
Your resignation letter itself only needs to be a few sentences long: Simply state the position from which you're resigning and the date you'll be leaving. You should also take this opportunity to include a few words of thanks to your employer, and offer your help with the transition. Be sure to sign your letter of resignation, as this makes it official. And just to be on the safe side, make a few copies and keep at least one for your own files.
On the day you actually depart from your old job, it's customary to send some kind of farewell message to your co-workers. Goodbye letters are more traditional, while goodbye emails are more common nowadays. You may also want to send personal letters or emails to co-workers with whom you've become particularly close, or to people who may be able to help you out with references and letters of recommendation in the future.
The level of formality in each of these types of communication will vary, of course – but a few general guidelines apply to all of them. Start by simply stating that you're leaving, and provide a little information about your immediate plans – for example, that you've accepted a position with another company, or than you plan to take a hiatus for a few weeks. Next, emphasize that you've enjoyed working for the company, and that you value the relationships you've formed during your time there. You can even include a few sentences of thanks for specific learning experiences and training you acquired.
If you're comfortable sharing some contact details with everyone in your company or department, feel free to include them – but you may prefer to say that you'll be happy to share those details with anyone who asks. After all, some people are worthy of your personal phone number, while you may only want to share your email or LinkedIn profile with others. Finally, close out your goodbye letter by offering your best wishes to everyone, and sign off with a "Yours sincerely," a "Warm regards," or a similar phrase.
Depending on the type of job you're applying for, some employers may ask to see a sample of your writing. If the job is in journalism or another writing-heavy field, the employer is likely to be satisfied with a few samples of your best articles, reviews or papers. But if the employer's expectations aren't exactly clear, it's important to ask for specific guidelines – and for clarification on those guidelines, if you need it. You may be surprised by how easy the requirements are – many employers won't expect your writing sample to exceed 500 words, and most are mainly looking for a sample that's free from typos, misspellings and grammatical errors.
Beyond that, you'll want to choose a topic – or, if the topic is assigned, an angle on the topic – that demonstrates your intelligence, your unique personality, and your grasp of the subject. Keep your writing relevant to the job; for example, if it's a job in the legal field, focus on presenting law-related ideas as clearly as possible. But at the same time, don't be afraid to inject a little wit or humor where appropriate, as this will distinguish you from the competition. Use at least one or two specific examples of whatever you're describing, in order to add color to your presentation of the topic. Above all, make sure your writing is structured and concise: Present an idea, present arguments and examples, then close by summarizing what you've said. Stick to this simple formula and you'll have a professional writing sample in no time.
Cover Letter Guides — An extensive guide to every aspect of writing cover letters, with plenty of examples.
Quitting Your Job — A set of short articles on how to handle the quitting process, including your goodbye letter.
Guidelines for Writing Samples — A handy list of tips for crafting writing samples, in PDF format.