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Can This Cover Letter Be Saved? Yes!

A poorly written cover letter dismayed my kind friend Elizabeth when she received it in response to an ad for an office manager. Compassionate person that she is, Elizabeth wanted to help the woman who applied. That’s where I got involved.

Here is the applicant’s letter, followed by my advice. Her name and other identifying information have been changed.

Hello my name is Mary.

I am interested in the admin job you guys are hiring for. I was in the military for 2 years as a HR specialist, basically a admin clerk. I answered phones, prepared paperwork, created excel spreadsheets, etc. When i was Stationed in Germany i supervised 6 soldiers being that i had the most experience in Admin. I do alot with computers, being that i go to school online, so passing the computer test will be easy. I did alot of volunteer work while in the military, so that was real fun. I dont have any background so checking that is fine. The reason im writing so much is i just got out the military in JAN or 2008, and i just had a baby on March 2nd, 2008, so im looking for a full time job in the Admin area, and i thought this would be great. Attache dis my resume and hopfully i will talk to you soon.

Dear Mary (your pseudonym):

You sound enthusiastic about getting a job in the administrative area. Here are specific tips for improving your cover letters and other written pieces so you can be successful.

  1. In any business communication, have only one main idea per paragraph. If you follow that approach, your cover letter will be approximately four short paragraphs. 
    Check your public library or a bookstore to find books with sample cover letters. Examples will show you how to break up your content.
  2. Limit your sentences to one main idea each. This sentence has four main ideas: (1) The reason im writing so much is i just got out the military in JAN or 2008, and (2) i just had a baby on March 2nd, 2008, (3) so im looking for a full time job in the Admin area, and (4) i thought this would be great. With just one idea per sentence, you will be able to write clearly and concisely, and your reader will follow your message easily.
  3. Include only the information your reader needs to know. In your cover letter, that means including just the information that will encourage the potential employer to call you for an interview. Leave out information about your new baby, which is not a selling point to an employer. Also leave out your comment about the background check and about volunteering–unless your volunteer work ties to the job description. (If it does, make that link clear.)
  4. In a cover letter, give specific examples that will help your reader understand why you are a good candidate for the job. For example, if the job description said the applicant must be able to get along with very diverse groups of people, you would mention that being in the military, especially stationed outside the U.S., helped you learn to work successfully with a wide variety of people in challenging situations.
  5. Capitalize all proper nouns (such as Excel) and the pronoun I. Do not capitalize other words such as stationed and administration. Using proper capitalization is a sign of a careful writer–and office manager.
  6. Avoid slang and incorrect grammar. For example, avoid "you guys," "real fun," and "alot" (which should be a lot).
  7. Use the word an (not a) before a word that begins with a vowel sound: an HR specialist, an admin. clerk. (By the way, spell out administrative and administration. Consider your cover letter a formal communication.)
  8. Do not give your name at the beginning. Include it at the end after the close of your letter. Sign above your typed signature, like this:
    Mary R. Smith
    Mary R. Smith
  9. Engage the reader from the first sentence. For example, try an opening like this: As someone with three years of experience as an office administrator–including managing soldiers–I am pleased to apply for the position of office manager. (Your reader will be intrigued by the soldier connection and will read on.)
  10. Use your computer’s grammar and spelling checker. Then proofread carefully–at least once silently, once out loud, and at least one more time after an hour or more has passed. You must eliminate errors such as dont for don’t and hopfully for hopefully.

Reviewing your letter, I worry that you will not be successful in an administrative position until you strengthen your writing skills. Why not check your local community college for a class? Or read this blog from beginning to end, and try the links to other writing resources. Also, sign up for my newsletter, Better Writing at Work. The current issue is about how to sound professional in writing.

Mary, I wish you success and happiness in your future position and in your role as a parent. I know Elizabeth does too.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.