The cover, or motivation, letter is the document that accompanies your résumé or curriculum vitae when you are applying for a job. It serves as the first sample of your writing ability and attention to detail. For academic purposes, the document used is typically called the statement of purpose, and is laid out after somewhat different rules. The goal of the cover letter is to introduce your résumé or CV, to bring to attention aspects of your activity that can help your application and are not listed or not presented in the proper light in your résumé or CV. Your cover letter should emphasize why you want to work for that particular organization and why you would be a good fit. An effective cover letter engages the reader and encourages him or her to invite you for an interview. In short, its goal is to answer the recruiter's question: "Why should I hire this person?".
Cover letters are generally one page at most in length (200-250 words), with ample margins (minimum 2.5 cm). Choose a "warm" typeface that is clear and easy to read, such as Times New Roman, Arial, Courier, or Book Antiqua. When choosing a font, always consider your audience. If you are writing to a conservative company, you may want to use Times New Roman. However, if you are writing to a more liberal company, you have a little more freedom when choosing fonts. You must use an adequate font size - no smaller than font size 10. You may indent your paragraphs or not - but not indenting gives a little bit more room.
Write individual letters. Personalized communications are always the way to go, so take the time to tailor each letter to the organization and person to whom you're writing. "Stock" or "generic" letters are offensive to recruiters these days.
Use simple, clear sentences. Choose every word carefully. Constantly ask yourself, "Is there any way I can say this more clearly?" And, "Is this giving the reader the exact idea I mean to communicate?"
Write in the active tense. Active verbs are the key when writing cover letters and resumes. Instead of saying, "...my best attributes include team play and motivating people," say "I'm a dedicated team player who can motivate people..." The latter promises a go-getter of an employee - someone who can take action instead of waiting to be led by the hand.
Proofread your letter for spelling or grammatical errors before printing it out. ONE mistake indicates carelessness to the employer and may disqualify you before you've even had a chance. If you do not feel confident about your English skills, ask someone, e.g., your TOEFL instructor, to proofread your cover letter.
Cover letters have a quite rigid structure and a standard business letter layout. Cover letters are usually divided into a header, introduction, body, conclusion, and a footer.
The layout of the header is that of a formal business letter: your address and contact details come under your name, in the upper right corner of the page. Underneath, aligned left, write the name, function, organization and address of the person you are writing to. It is a lot better to know the name of the person who is going to read your letter. You should address the letter directly to him or her. In case you do not know the name (if it is not mentioned in the official announcement), a little digging on the Internet or a phone call should help you get that name. Under the receiver's address, aligned right, write the date of the day when you are writing the letter. You should spell the name of the month and use four digits for the year. You can put in front of the date the location, e.g., Tighina, April 2, 2008.
Following that is an optional reference section (e.g. "RE: Internship Opportunity at Global Corporation") and an optional transmission note (e.g. "Via Email to firstname.lastname@example.org").
The final part of the header is the salutation. If you do know the name of the addressee (preferred), start with Dear Mr. (Mister), Ms. (to address a woman whose marital status you don't know; also used to address an unmarried woman), Mrs. (to address a married woman), Dr. (Doctor) and the last name of the addressee. The abbreviations are usually written without periods (Mr) in British English and with periods (Mr.) in American English. The salutation is followed by a colon (e.g., Dear Dr. Smith:) in American English and by a comma (e.g., Dear Dr. Smith,) in British English. If you do not know the name, start with "To whom it may concern:" (American style) or "Dear Sir or Madam," (British style). Do not use the salutation "Dear Sir". Many cover letter readers are women.
Introduce yourself by stating your degree program and the year in which you will graduate. Specify whether you are seeking a permanent or summer position. Tell why you are writing, and name the position, field, or general vocational area in which you are interested. Tell how you heard of the opening or organization (e.g. an ad on the Internet or in the newspaper, etc.). If someone referred you, include that information.
The introductory paragraph of your cover letter should catch the reader's attention straight away. If this paragraph is not well written, the rest of the letter will probably not be read. Avoid phrases like "I am writing to apply for positions x". The employer has probably read at least 10 letters and starting like that in the last 30 minutes. The more different your opening sentence, the higher the chances of the employer reading your whole letter.
In short, the body, consisting of one or two paragraphs, should show why you are good for the job. Tell why you are particularly interested in the company, type of work, or location. Mention your skills and qualifications that you think would be of greatest interest to the employer and that make you the right person for the position you are applying for. Read carefully the announcement, identify the requirements and see how your skills match those required. Do not simply state you have them, prove it. If you have related experience or specialized training, you may point it out. Ideally, you should start from your experience and show how you have developed those qualifications by doing what you have been doing/learning. Same as in the case of your résumé or CV, the result should portrait you as an independent, creative person that can take initiative and deal with responsibilities, apart from the specific skills needed for the job. Refer the reader to the enclosed résumé, which will give additional information concerning your background and interests.
You may also want to point out why you want the job. Outline your interest for the skills you are going to learn if you get the job. The impression left should be that you can make a genuine contribution to the company's operations, while simultaneously deriving satisfaction from your work.
Conclude by stating your desire for an interview. You may state that you will phone or e-mail in a week or so. If you say that, make sure that you follow through. You may want to include your contact information (phone and e-mail) so the reader knows how you can be reached.
The conclusion is followed by the footer. It begins with the valediction "Sincerely yours" or "Yours truly" (American style) or "Yours sincerely" if you have addressed the person by name or "Yours faithfully" if you have begun the letter with "Dear Sirs", etc. (British style). The valediction is followed by the signature line. Do not forget to leave a blank space between the valediction and your name and to sign the letter in that space.
Optionally, the word "ENCLOSURE(S)" or the abbreviation "Encl." may be used to indicate that there are enclosures. It is customary for formal letters to mention whether you have enclosed any documents accompanying the letter.
Print your cover letter on A4 white paper, same as that on which your résumé or CV was printed, and put both documents in an A4 white envelope. Sometimes a cover letter in a different color might catch the employer's attention, but this could backfire. If you are e-mailing your cover letter, request a notification that your documents have been received. Wait at least two weeks since the day you sent your application or after the deadline before writing again in case you did not get any answer.
USEFUL INTERNET RESOURCES
PROFESSIONAL, TECHNICAL, AND JOB SEARCH WRITING by the Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University, IN, USA
COVER LETTERS: TYPES AND SAMPLES by the Career Services and the Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech, VA, USA
COVER LETTERS by the Global Education & Career Development Center at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), MA, USA
COVER LETTERS & OTHER CORRESPONDENCE in the Riley Guide (a directory of employment and career information sources and services on the Internet) by Margaret F. Dikel (email@example.com)
COVER LETTERS by Bill Frank (firstname.lastname@example.org), President/CEO of CareerLab, CO, USA
HOW TO WRITE A COVER LETTER by Eric R. Anderson, Career Development at Capital University, OH, USA
COVER LETTER HELP by coverletterhelp.org (Free Resume, Cover Letter & Curriculum Vitae Resources)