14 FAQ About Cover Letters

As a partner in America Online's Career Center, I received several e-mails each day asking simple questions about cover letters. Here are answers to 12 frequently asked questions:

Q: When writing a cover letter should you be confident and full of yourself? Will this sway the employer in either direction?

A: You should be confident and purposeful, but not arrogant.

Q: What is the proper salutation when the person is unknown? Dear Sir or Madam? I never have liked Madam.

A: Try one of these: Dear Manager:, Dear Hiring Manager:, Dear Executive:, or Dear Recruiter:.

Q: I am having problems handling the "send cover letter with salary history" issue. How do you address this? Employment counselors have told me never to put salary in a cover letter. On the other hand, I have been told by employers that if they request salary history and the prospect fails to include it, they overlook the candidate. HELP!!

A: It's a double bind—and there's no way to win. If you don't include salary history, they may screen you out for not following directions. If you do include it, you could be screened out because you're too expensive. Best bet: put something in. Admit you've been earning $20,000, if you're happy with that. In the letter, say something like: "My compensation in recent years has been in the $17-20,000 range." That might cover you if they want to pay less. If you're brave, you could say, "My compensation in recent years has been in the $17-22,000 range." That way they might possibly pay you more.

Q: I was wondering if you could help me with a tactful way to state in my cover letter not to contact current employer because that employer doesn't know I am shopping for better employment and may leave my job? How do you ask for "confidentiality" without sounding sneaky??

A: Asking for confidentiality doesn't sound "sneaky." It's standard business practice and it's done all the time. On the line right before "Dear Mr. Smith," type PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL in all caps, and underline it. At the end of the letter, after your signature, type something like: "P.S. For obvious reasons, I must request absolute confidentiality."

Q: I am a recent graduate of a Master's program in education at Hunter College (in New York City) with one year's experience as an assistant teacher. I am looking for advice on writing a cover letter to go to the district education offices and several schools in NYC. I would also like to review some sample letters that fit my situation, however, most of the letters I find are geared toward business people. Do you have any quick suggestions?

It's important to personalize the letter so the reader understands the emotional reason(s) for your application. What's your mission, purpose, cause? What's driving you? Did a teacher change your life? Do you come from a family of teachers? Why do you think you can make a difference? Explain this in your letter, and keep it SHORT.

Q: I faxed a cover letter to a company in response to an ad in the New York Times. I wrote that I will give them a call to discuss the job in more detail, but I just realized that the phone number, name of the company, or contact person is not advertised in the paper. I only have the fax number. Any suggestions on what to do now?

You have two choices, either acceptable: 1) Do nothing, just let it ride. They will realize you can't call them because they didn't give contact information in the ad; or 2) Create a second cover letter using your letterhead, explain what happened, and FAX it exactly as the first letter. I would lean toward option two. It gives you one more moment of visibility to the employer and says, "I'm a person who cares about details."

Q: Can you tell me where I can get information on writing a job proposal letter? I was contacted by a company that is interested in my services. The manager wants me to put in writing what it would take to go to work for them. I have a good job now, but this is a good opportunity. I don't know how to format such a letter. Can you help?

A proposal is just that—a place to begin discussions. I generally never write a proposal for someone cold, that is until we both understand fully what we're talking about. If I were you, I would say something like, "I'm ready to write a proposal, but what topics would you like me to address?" The manager might say, "Just write anything you want," but that puts too much of the burden on you. I would urge the manager to help rough out the text: Job title, duties and responsibilities, benefits to the company, salary and benefits, time frame (when the job would begin). All these things should be discussed before committing them to writing. Also, any proposal should be SHORT—one page. That way you two can discuss it and change it easily.

Q: I am about to be promoted to a Regional Manager's position and would like to thank you for helping me compose my cover letter. I would also like to know if there are any resources available to help me put together a territory business/marketing plan.

Any library or good bookstore would have a wealth of titles on writing a business plan—but KEEP IT SIMPLE. When a boss asks for a plan, they usually mean SOMETHING SHORT, so they can tell if you're going the right direction. First, I would ask the boss what he or she wants in the plan. Then I would try a one-page plan, including CONCEPT, TARGET CUSTOMER, BUDGET (projected income and expenses), COMPETITION, SALES VOLUME, MARKETING IDEAS. Once the boss signs off on the one-page plan, it's easy to expand it with more detail.

Q: I need to write a follow-up letter to a potential employer. The interview was last week, I sent a follow-up letter and called her today. Since I was only expecting to leave a voice mail, I was not prepared when she answered the phone. Needless to say, I was flustered and stuttered. She asked me why I still wanted the job, and I screwed up my reply. She is to make a decision by the end of the week, and I REALLY WANT THIS JOB. How can I word my letter to counteract the corniness of the phone conversation and reiterate my strengths?

Good question. But you probably didn't goof up as badly as you think. An honest follow-up letter could work wonders, something like "I was pleased to talk to you Thursday, but I was expecting voice mail. When you answered personally, I was caught off guard and didn't really come across well. When you asked X, I said Y. What I really meant to say was XXX. Also, I should have told you Z. You need to know that I really want the job. I feel I'm a good fit because (list reasons). I'm looking forward to taking the next step in the interviewing process. With best regards."

Q: A few months ago I turned down a job offer for the same money I'm making now. My situation with my current employer has changed and I have discovered the new company is still hiring. How can I form a letter expressing interest in the job I turned down?

The letter would simply restate what you told me. "I turned down a job in your organization several months ago, but now my situation has changed. I am interested in knowing if the position we discussed, or something similar, is still available, and I will call you in the next week to reintroduce myself."

Q: I graduated from college a month ago and I am currently looking for a job. Last summer I interned for the Baltimore Sun newspaper in the promotions department. During my internship, my boss at the Sun told me that she has friends in various media-related jobs and would be happy to put in a good word for me. I have not spoken to her since late August, at the conclusion of my internship. I feel bad that I did not keep in touch with her after my internship. What would be the most appropriate way for me to contact her? How do I ask for help and advice?

Don't feel bad about not staying in touch. Your mentor has probably been busy too. Simply make a call and say something like, "Janet, I've got great news. Using your good advice I've finished my degree, and I want you to know you were a major factor in my success. I especially remember XXX, and it meant a great deal to me." After a brief discussion, ask for her advice and ideas. She'll be thrilled to help.

Q: I am about to resign and take a new job. Should I copy my boss' boss and other senior managers on my letter of resignation, or just announce it to them?

It's probably good form to share your letter with senior managers, but better to address letters individually to them, rather than copy them on someone else's letter.

If you're leaving on good terms—which I assume you are—this will confirm your good relationship with them, create good PR, and insure a good reference should you need it years later in another job search. It's not a bad idea to make the letter as warm and friendly as you can; and it's a good idea to include some specific words of thanks.

These days, job hunters can find most of what they need online, including cover letters. I've adapted my book, 200 Letters For Job Hunters, for the Internet. You can access the 348-page book, read the how-to text, find a letter, and download and edit it in a matter of seconds. To gain access to the cover letter collection, look here.

Good luck, and happy writing.
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