Résumé cover letters are a bit like the Mccaulay Calkin character in the 1990 hit movie “Home Alone.” Overlooked by his family when they went on vacation, he was inadvertently forgotten and left behind. Many job hunters do the same and put little effort into their cover letters even after expending a lot of time and effort on their résumés.
Yet your cover letter can play a key role in differentiating yourself from other job hunters in today’s highly competitive job market. It offers an opportunity to demonstrate how some of your key skills are relevant to employers’ needs and will help them achieve their goals. Additionally, a well-written cover letter is a demonstration of your written communication skills.
Cover letters can help you constructively deal with issues in your employment history such as an employment gap or frequent job changes. Cover letters are particularly useful for both new graduates wishing to enter a nontraditional chemistry career field and experienced job hunters wishing to change careers.
To make the best impression, cover letters should be customized to each employer you contact. Customizing your cover letter means showing how your skills, education and experience align with the employer’s requirements. Ideally the cover letter should be addressed to the hiring manager for the position or department to which you are applying.
Anatomy of a cover letter
Your cover letter should consist of approximately four paragraphs and be limited to a single page. If at all possible, your cover letter should be addressed by name to the hiring manager.
Your cover letter should be an example of your best writing. It should not contain any typos, poor spelling or poor sentence construction.
Your opening paragraph should explain the purpose of your letter. You may be answering an employment advertisement, contacting the firm because you know it is interested in developing a certain type of technology or because your professor or a current employee of the company suggested you contact them.
The next two paragraphs should describe your technical accomplishments that will be of greatest interest to the employer. Don’t just repeat information in your résumé. Instead, describe how your skills helped you obtain key results in your previous job or your academic research group. Be as quantitative as possible. For example, you might mention that a manufacturing process improvement reduced manufacturing cost, increased yield or increased plant throughput by specific percentages.
Your concluding paragraph should reiterate your interest in working for the company and ask for an employment interview. If you have the hiring manager’s telephone number, you may wish to say you’ll call to check the status of your application.
Like your résumé, your cover letter should be error-free. A single typo or other mistake can lead to your application being discarded. other mistakes besides typos include addressing the letter to the wrong company or misspelling someone’s name. Neither error would be picked up by a grammar or spell checker so you need to proofread carefully before sending.
Your letter needs to be interesting. Boring letters turn readers off. In particular, your first line should grab the reader’s interest so they keep reading your cover letter.
Many employers use tracking software to store information about applicants. They can tell if applicants use the same cover letter to apply for more than one position at their company. While this is perfectly acceptable, your cover letter should be customized for each position you apply for.
Don’t use form letters. Experienced human resource professionals can sense when a cover letter is a form letter, perhaps copied from a job-hunting book, with a little customization thrown in. These “cookie-cutter” cover letters can doom your application. Like your résumé, your cover letter should be customized for a specific job opening.
John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.