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The Purpose of a Cover Letter — Explained

The Purpose of a Cover Letter  — Explained

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If you have been on the job hunt recently, you might have seen some ads that ask for a cover letter.

The most common use of a cover letter is in applying for jobs, but it may be required or useful in other contexts as well.

A cover letter should never be more than a page long. When you need to write a cover letter, you can find many helpful templates online.

What is the purpose of a cover letter?

The purpose of a cover letter is to briefly introduce yourself to a person or group. It is a formal document, and it is generally used in situations related to employment or education. Depending on the reason that you are sending the letter, a cover letter may mention your qualifications, the project you are working on or other relevant information. A cover letter gives a very brief overview in just a few sentences, of the main points that you want to convey.

In many cases, the cover letter is accompanied by additional material that gives more information about the points you touched on in the letter.

However, many people use the phrase “cover letter” to refer to a wider variety of letters in which the cover letter itself would be the only document.

Besides job applications, other situations in which you might use a cover letter include applying for a grant, networking and sending material to an editor for possible publication.

A cover letter does not have to be a letter written on paper and placed in an envelope. “Cover letter” can also refer to an email.

Are cover letters important?

Once you get the hang of them, cover letters may seem like fairly unimportant documents. However, this is not the case.

Although they are short, cover letters are packed with a lot of information.

They signal to the recipient that you are able to follow instructions since the cover letter will probably be part of what is requested.

You will occasionally see instructions that tell you not to include a cover letter, and of course, if this is the case, you should follow those instructions!

More common might be a situation in which there is no information about whether or not to include a cover letter.

In those cases, it is better to err on the side of including one as long as it is a situation in which a cover letter would normally be required.

A recipient who is not interested in the cover letter can simply discard it.

Another important function of cover letters is to provide a concise overview of your qualifications, your project or whatever else you are trying to present to the recipient. A cover letter should be both persuasive and informative.

Finally, cover letters are a form of courtesy. Think of them as a way of saying hello and introducing yourself to a person instead of barging straight in and talking about what you want or need from that person.

The job or career-related cover letter

A basic cover letter for a job application or to accompany your resume or CV is the most common type of cover letter, and it may well be the only type of cover letter that you ever write or encounter.

As job applications become more automated, even these types of cover letters are becoming less common, but unless there is not a way to attach a cover letter or the job posting specifically says not to include a cover letter, you should still write one.

A traditional cover letter accompanying a job application, a resume or a CV should make a point of mentioning the qualifications that you possess that match the qualifications required for the job.

Bullet points can be a great way to convey this information concisely.

A common error that people make in job-related cover letters is talking about the ways that the job will be good for them and fit into their career plan.

Keep in mind that your focus should be on how you will be an asset to the company and not the other way around.

This traditional type of cover letter is also where you might explain or expand on any irregularities in your application, resume or CV.

For example, if there is a large employment gap, you might briefly explain that you were raising children or backpacking around the world.

You can also explain what you learned during this time that would be relevant to the position you are applying for and that would make you a stronger candidate.

In fact, you should keep this in mind about everything that you write in the job-related cover letter: It should all be about demonstrating why you are the right person for the position.

There are several variations on this type of cover letter.

Referral cover letter

This is not very different from a traditional cover letter except that it will include the information that someone either at the company or who the company respects has referred you for the job.

You should mention this person in the first paragraph. You should also describe how you know them and why they think you would be right for the job.

For example, your letter might say, “Kelly Wu, your current head of sales, was my colleague for five years at X Corporation.

She mentioned that I might be a good fit at Z Company because I increased sales by 15% each year when we worked together.”

Cold contact or letter of interest

Many job openings are never advertised. They are filled internally, or word about the vacancy is passed by word of mouth.

For this reason, in some situations and some industries, it might be helpful to write a letter that describes your strengths and says that you are interested in a job with the company even if they have not posted an opening.

There are a couple of challenges you face with this type of letter that you do not face with a regular job application cover letter.

One is identifying who to address the letter to. This might be someone who is a supervisor in the department that interests or someone with whom you have a professional contact.

The other is that since there is no job posting, you do not have a list of the qualifications they are looking for. Try to describe your strongest skills and accomplishments instead.

Networking letter

There are times when you might want to make a contact at a company even when you are not specifically looking for a job.

You might write a networking letter when you are considering a career change and want an informational interview, when you want to follow up after meeting someone or when you think that their company and your company might work together in the future.

In a networking letter, you should mention how you are connected with the person, whether is it through meeting them personally or a mutual colleague.

You should also be clear and concise about what you are asking for, whether it is a short meeting or if you are simply following up to maintain contact.

This type of letter would probably be sent in an email instead of as a letter that you put in the mail.

Value proposition letter

When you are applying for a job and the employer has not requested a cover letter, you might use this as an alternative. This might also be appropriate instead of a cold calling letter to let a company know that you are interested in working for them and why.

This differs from a traditional job application cover letter in several ways. It is shorter, perhaps only a paragraph long.

This brevity is an advantage over a cover letter in cases where you are reaching out to busy people who may not have time to read an entire cover letter from someone they don’t know.

The other way that a value proposition letter differs significantly from a cover letter is that it focuses primarily on what you can do for the company in the present rather than your past experience.

Remember, with this type of cover letter, you are only trying to grab attention. You can fill in the details later if they contact you.

You may also want to consider combining elements of the value proposition in your traditional cover letter. For example, you might promise to meet a certain sale goal.

The grant application cover letter

If you are a scientist, an artist, an academic or you work in the nonprofit field, there is a good chance that at some point, you will apply for a grant. In certain industries, entrepreneurs may also be eligible for grants.

It can be tempting to focus most of your energy on the proposal, and while that is the most important part of your grant application, your cover letter can actually be the deciding factor in whether you receive the grant.

One way to think about this is that people who are reviewing grant applications may have an enormous workload. While they are trying to be thorough, they also need to be able to quickly assess the potential of a project.

A cover letter can be the tool that helps them do this and gets your request placed in the “maybe” pile to be looked over at greater length instead of the “no” pile.

There are two vital pieces of information you need to include in this type of cover letter at the very beginning.

You need to address it to the right person, and you need to ask for a certain amount of money for a specific purpose unless the grant has other rules for determining how much to give you.

The next paragraph or two can expand on how the grant will allow you to accomplish your purpose.

Keep the letter short and easy to read. You want to grab the attention of the person reading it in a positive way and make them want to learn more about your proposal.

As is the case with a job application, you should only omit the cover letter if the application material specifically says not to send one.

Cover letter with a submission

There are also times when you might include a cover letter with a submission of a document or something else for consideration or with paperwork.

One common use of a cover letter in this situation is if you are a writer submitting an article, a story or a book for publication.

This type of cover letter should only be about a paragraph or two long. You should mention your background in writing as well as any qualifications that are relevant to the piece you are submitting.

You may also send a cover letter in a variety of situations in which you need to provide documentation or you are sending something to someone.

In these situations, the cover letter may serve two primary purposes.

One of those purposes is simply to be a polite formality.

The other is to specifically mention what you are sending and why. This can be useful if you are sending documents for something important because it lets the person know what you intended to send and can also alert them if anything is missing.

For example, the letter might say something like “Enclosed please find Form 117-A, a copy of my passport and three months of bank statements as required to expedite the processing of my visa.”

You might also use the cover letter to refer back to a conversation or contact.

For example, the cover letter might say, “Per my phone conversation with Fred Smith on March 26, I have enclosed the broken watch and a copy of my warranty.”

If you are sending a check, it is a good idea to mention this in a cover letter: “Enclosed please find my final payment for $150.”

Tone in a cover letter

A cover letter is a business document. For that reason, you should always err on the side of formality when you are writing it.

Even if you know the person you are writing the cover letter to, you should generally keep it professional and concise.

While it is always best to use names in cover letters, there are situations in which you will need to send one and you don’t know who you are sending it to.

In those cases, your salutation can be “To whom it may concern.” This is very formal and may sound a little bit stiff, but it is accepted as the best way to write a letter to an unknown person.