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I’m always happy to write referral letters for friends and colleagues. After all, everyone can use a good word from someone else who is in their field or, even better, someone who is already employed by the company that has the job opening. That referral letter can make all the difference when you are seeking that initial interview with a company.

Yet it never fails to surprise me when those same friends and colleagues lack a basic understanding of the other necessary steps for obtaining an interview. Sure, they know all about the need for an impressive resume to accompany their application. Yet, amazingly, something as simple as a cover letter often seems to escape their notice.
For instance, a friend who recently applied for a job regaled me with the details of his beautifully written resume. Then he remarked offhandedly, “That’s enough, right? I don’t need a cover letter or anything.” The answer to that second part is a resounding “yes.” Of course, he needs a cover letter, and so do you.

A cover letter introduces you to prospective employers. It’s your opportunity to provide a brief outline, detailing the ways you will benefit their company. If you are new to the business world, your cover letter may expound on the links between the job opening and your educational background and internships. For more experienced professionals, a cover letter showcases highlights from your career, tying those skills and experiences to the position for which you are applying. Perhaps best of all, a cover letter displays your personality, your ability to fit within their company structure, your drive and passion for excellence in the position. In short, a cover letter sells you as the best candidate for the job.

As it turns out, like many people, my friend required a little help putting his cover letter together. It can be difficult to know where to begin, what to include, and even what to exclude. That’s why so many people avoid writing cover letters. Therefore, in case a bit of help might be useful to you as well, here are a few guidelines:

THE INGREDIENTS OF A GREAT PROFESSIONAL COVER LETTER

  • Before beginning, get referrals. This is the time to avail yourself of your connections. Anyone who works for the company or has a link to someone there would be an excellent resource for information. They are also the ideal contact for referrals. Simply ask permission to mention their names and, if feasible, request that they contact the employer on your behalf. There is only one caveat: Be sure to seek referrals only from those who are acquainted with your work as well as your overall work ethic.
  • Mention your referral in your first paragraph. After the salutation, mention your referral. Using words such as “I am applying for ________, a position for which I come highly recommended by _________.” By naming a well-respected professional, you lend credibility to your application and cover letter, encouraging the reader to continue reading your letter.
  • Describe your qualifications in your second paragraph. This is where you can spotlight your pertinent experiences and background, giving insight into the qualifications that make you uniquely qualified for this position.
  • State your desire for an interview. In the final paragraph, clearly request an interview. For example, “I would very much appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this position.”
  • Give a specific time for your follow-up. At the end, specify precisely when you will follow up on your letter. You might say, “I will call next week to confirm that you have received my letter and application.” Remember to include an additional reference to your contact information as well.

A cover letter should take no more than a page, getting to the point in a cheerful yet professional manner, expressing confidence without bragging. Have someone in your field proofread it to ensure that it is both error-free and appropriate for your profession. Then don’t forget to send two thank-you notes: one to the person who referred you and one to your interviewer after you get that interview.

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