Frequently there is confusion about the exact meaning of the term "cover letter".
That's because when most people use that term, they don't realize that there are TWO main types of cover letters. There are "document transmittal cover letters", and there are "resume cover letters".
Some people have even gone so far as to name ALL letters “cover letters”. That’s plain wrong of course, but there are some actual books/ebooks that have been published referring to cover letters as if all types of letters are cover letters. Go figure?
DOCUMENT COVER LETTERS
A document cover letter is a letter of transmittal that explains and conveys an attached document to a second party.
The types of documents that this type of cover letter is used for typically include: reports, plans, legal papers, applications, manuscripts, contracts, travel documents, booklets, manuals, brochures, product samples, photos, artwork, etc.
A document cover letter is normally a short one-page business letter that very briefly explains the attached or enclosed document(s) that is being sent. It only contains the essential information such as why the document(s) is being sent, what the recipient is expected to do with it, and any applicable deadlines.
RESUME COVER LETTERS
When most people use or hear the term "cover letter" they are thinking of resume cover letters.
Resume cover letters are used for one purpose only; to convey a resume or curriculum vitae to a prospective employer.
A resume cover letter is normally a concise one-pager that introduces you, explains why you're writing, summarizes your key skills, abilities and experience, and asks the recipient to get back to you. Its main purpose is to capture the attention of the recipient enough to get that person to look at the attached resume with interest.
Of the two types of cover letters, by far the most commonly requested at my Writing Help Central Web site is the cover letter for a resume or curriculum vitae.
RESUME COVER LETTER WRITING TIPS
When drafting a cover letter for a resume or c.v., there are a number of important rules of thumb to follow. The following list is an adapted summary of a similar list in my eBook "Instant Home Writing Kit".
Address It To A Specific Person
Even when sending an unsolicited resume to a company you should take the time to find out the name of the appropriate person and write the letter to that person. At least it will reach their office. Resumes sent to "Dear Human Resources Manager" are almost always a waste of time. Name someone specifically and it will at least make it into an in-basket.
Keep It Short and Focused
Remember, your resume already says it all. Keep the letter short and focused and don't repeat what is already in the attached resume or c.v. Never exceed one page in a cover letter.
Express your interest in the job and the new company with enthusiasm. Show that you really want the job, and that you would really like to work for that particular company. Giving a specific reason or two for your enthusiasm wouldn’t hurt.
Focus On Needs Of the Employer
Throughout your cover letter make it clear that you are interested in the needs of the employer. You are there to help them. You are part of the solution. Try to make this the subliminal message of your entire letter.
Show That You've Done Your Homework
Demonstrate a good knowledge of the company and industry for which you are applying. A one-liner, or a phrase or two in the appropriate place in your letter that shows you are interested, and understand the company's problems, will give you instant credibility (i.e. do some simple Internet research).
Use the Appropriate "Buzzwords"
Every organization has its own ways of doing things and its own lingo. Look through key documents such as annual reports, corporate Web sites, etc. Try to spot key words, terms, and phrases that are often repeated. Every company has them. Use as many of these "hot buttons" as you can in your cover letter - where appropriate of course. For example, if the "Message From the CEO" in the annual report mentions the phrase "action plan for the future" three times, make sure you work that term into your cover letter. Don't overdo it though.
Summarize Your Skills and Abilities
If possible, without making the letter too long, and without repeating the wording in your resume, summarize your overall skills and abilities in bullet-point form. This can make them stand out in a way that they wouldn't, buried in the resume or c.v.
Promise To Follow Up
In the final paragraph, clearly state that you will be following up by telephone in a few days to see if you can answer any questions. Make sure you do this. Industry experts say that over 80% of people never do this crucial follow-up and just wait for the phone to ring.
The challenge of course, is to try to address all of these points in a three or four paragraph letter. It can be done!