I know a lot of people just out of college, or making transitions from internships to jobs right now, and I've had the enjoyment (nerd alert) to look over their resume and cover letters before they send them off.
My work as an acquisitions editor means I see many, many writer and illustrator CVs and cover letters each week. Most of them are tearfully boring so when I do get one with a sense of humor or a personality, I take notice.
The always insightful and gorgeous Gala Darling wrote an exceptional piece on how to write a great CV a while back. I want to focus more on your cover letter. If your resume is a list of your accomplishments, your cover letter should be a tiny slice of your best self, including your personality, wit, accuracy, and maybe even your chai addiction. Your cover letter needs to be sparkly, fresh, and most of all, you at your sexiest, most charming, and most professional.
These are the basic ingredients:
1. company contact name and information
3. state the position for which you are applying
4. why you want it
5. why they should hire you
5. your knowledge of the company
Start off with a bang
Your opening line is perhaps the most important thing in your entire letter. You have to grab them, or they're just going to skim over your letter. If you hook them though, they'll pore over it like a well-written short story. And that's what it should be. You're writing a short biography, one where you can craft any job or life experience the way you want it. Say something surprising, or something funny. Give them just a taste, and they'll be more intrigued to meet you. These great opening lines are mostly journalism related, but are easily modified to any career.
They want to know who you are and what to expect before they commit their time to interviewing you. Details are a wonderful way to stand out. Instead of writing, "I've been an intern at three places and am very good at it." Write "I'm the fastest coffee-maker in the business and I can sort through more mail in an hour than the US Post Office" -if it's true. Recruiters started out like everyone else, so remind them of that. For my last cover letter, I wrote about my life as a magazine intern and how I was well-skilled in "slipping CDs between pages 84 and 85." In the four interviews I had due to that letter, each interviewer mentioned that phrase, and most said they'd had jobs doing the exact same thing!
Don't be shy
If there was ever a time not to be shy, this is it. This is all these people know about you, so make it good. What would you want someone you had a crush on to know about you in your first meeting? You're flirting with the job prospect in the same manner. Don't lie, they'll find you out and it's bad for your karma, but do make yourself as good-looking as possible. If you love jump roping and were the regional junior champion, put it in, even if it has nothing to do the job. Your resume will speak to your applicable experience, but your cover letter will make them remember your name, or at least "the jump rope girl."
Break up your text
Brevity is worth more than a thousand words. Pick your specific details, but make them important, and worth some one else's time. Even though your paragraphs may be beautiful works of prose, if the information can be better conveyed in a bulleted list, do so. The reader will be thankful for the break and more likely to see your strong points if they're put in a straightforward manner instead of buried in windy sentences. Don't take out your personality, but put yourself in the shoes of the recruiter, looking through hundreds of cover letters, and make yours the one they spend the longest with.
Charm their pants off
Mention glowingly of how much you know about their company (you did your homework right?) and why you are THE person for the job. Everyone likes to be flattered, and if you're enthusiastic, you'll have a huge advantage on everyone else who sent a form letter. If you're responding to an ad that doesn't give the company name or through a temp agency, just do your best to show how enthusiastic you are to be working in your field, and make yourself look like you can handle any task they throw at you.
Make a showy exit
While I might advise against signing your name "Wiliam Wadsworth, the Fourth, Earl of Suburban Bumbly", you will be much more memorable if you come up with a nice signature. "Best", "Thank you for your time" and "Good luck in your endeavors" are all nice and appreciated, but if you can, add a little oomph to your last line to make it pop. Be professional, but slide just a little bit off the scale in favor of perhaps referring to that great opening line you had, or a bit of humor. Photographer Ansel Adams was a prolific letter writer, and used endings such as, "Cheerlow, luff, and all that."Sign on the dotted line
If you're sending a snail mail letter, be sure to physically sign your name. If you're emailing, it helps if you can scan your signature and include it, but it's not necessary. Do include your name and all your contact information, even if it's all in your resume, just in case the two get separated.
This is perhaps the single most important thing you can do. If you don't trust your grammar skills, find a friend, or your mother, or anyone else to do it for you. I normally do not even consider cover letters with one misspelling. It's sloppy and makes it look like you didn't even take time to spell check your work, so why should I spend my time on you? That may sound harsh, but it's the truth. Accuracy counts for so much. Also, please please please, if you're addressing it to a particular person, spell their name right! If you're not sure how it should be spelled, check. There should be at least one imprint of them on the web, and if not, I would daresay leave it out. Also, a small pet peeve I have, is that a lot of people assume genders, and they assume wrongly! It's not a big deal, but remember the flattery part? Don't make assumptions, be certain.
Quintessential Careers has some great examples of cover letters for every level of employment.
Cheers and pandas,
William Wadsworth the 4th
Earl of Suburban Bumbly