How to write successful cover letters

Take time to write a good original targeted cover letter for every application and proposal you submit, whether the goal is to get funding, a job, a grant, a work benefit, a professional honour – whatever. A well-crafted cover letter is essential even if you’re responding to specifications that say cover letters aren’t necessary. Exception: if the posting says ‘absolutely no cover letters,’ don’t disobey. But review your résumé or the application form and look for ways to work in helpful information you might otherwise include in the cover letter.

Writing effective cover letters is tough but worth the trouble because:

  • Letters offer golden opportunities to personalise an interaction. In most letters you’re asking for something that’s important to you and, if the initial process is conducted through writing, you must humanise your request.
  • Letters enable you to shine. A letter supplements what may be dry information if an application or proposal form give you little room to present yourself as an individual.
  • Letters set up your reader to give your submission the perspective you choose. You can provide a context for your accomplishments, point at what’s most relevant, add depth to a noteworthy qualification, or create your desired tone.

The following sections show you how to organise and execute a cover letter that strengthens your application or proposal.
Planning a cover letter

Start by focusing your goal

Often you need to go through a narrowing process. While your ultimate purpose may be to get a job or secure a contract, you rarely achieve this result from paperwork alone. At the first stage of competing for an opportunity, aim more realistically to survive the contest and be picked for further review.

Framing the goal this way helps you make good content choices. Consider the following question in brainstorming what to include in your letter.

  • What personal facets are you unable to include in the application that would strengthen your bid if brought to the reviewer’s attention?
  • Do you have any connection with your reader or the organisation worth referring to– a common acquaintance or alma mater, for example?
  • What are the key qualifications and qualities the organisation is looking for– and what are your best matching points?
  • Should your cover letter reflect the qualities the organisation is seeking? For example, should you aim to demonstrate creativity or attention to detail in your letter?
  • Why do you want this opportunity? Can you say something genuine and positive about your motivation or what you plan to do if you’re chosen?
  • Can you say something genuine and positive about the person or organisation you’re applying to? And why you think this is a good match?

Never treat the cover letter as an afterthought. Most of your competitors invest all their energy into their proposals and tack on careless, perfunctory notes rather than letters. In more than a few cases, a bad cover note eliminates someone from the running altogether because tired reviewers welcome the chance to ‘just say no’ to an applicant. Don’t let this be your situation. The planning process gives you insights on how to stand out.

Ideally, you can use your planning to shape the content of two pieces of writing that supplement and reinforce each other – the cover letter and the résumé, application or proposal itself. Consider your letter’s purpose and possibilities separately from the documents it accompanies. When practical, write the application or proposal first, and for the cover letter then draw on the thinking you worked out. You might deliberately bank an idea or two for the cover letter – see the section called ‘Saving something special for cover letters’ for more on this technique.

This is an edited extract from Business Writing For Dummies by Natalie Canavor, published by Wiley