Writing a Successful Cover Letter or E-mail

Always send a cover letter or an e-mail message with a resume. Which is more appropriate? It depends on these factors:

  • If you are mailing your application, a formal business letter is most appropriate.
  • If you are e-mailing your application, pay attention to what the employer has requested. If she or he asks for a cover letter, send one. If none is requested, a short, professionally worded e-mail should be fine.

Whichever type of letter you use, consider it an opportunity to demonstrate good writing and professionalism.

Tips for both letters and e-mails:

  • Keep your text short, accurate and concise.
  • Always address your letter or e-mail to the appropriate editor or producer. Make sure you spell his or her name correctly. With names such as Chris and Randy and Tracy, don’t assume the gender. Always triple-check spelling of names and titles, using different, reliable sources.
  • Do not start the text with, “To Whom It May Concern.” Use your journalism training and find out who is doing the hiring.
  • Do not address a professional you do not know by his or her first name. Use Mr., Mrs. or Ms.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread.

E-mail etiquette:

  • Always fully identify yourself -- first and last name, especially if your e-mail address does not identify you fully.
  • Use a proper format – a greeting line, a paragraph or two of text and a closing line. IMing or text messaging are not acceptable formats for e-mails to professionals. Please use complete sentences, good grammar and spelling. This is expected of journalism students, and you will embarrass yourself if there are grammatical errors or typos in your e-mail messages.
  • Check your tone. E-mails differ from telephone conversations, in which you can detect anger, humor, confusion, etc., at the other end. If you are making a request, do not put it in the form of a demand: "Send me the name of ..." Avoid accusatory statements such as, "You did not respond to my e-mail ..."

Guidelines for cover letters:

  • Use a professional business letter format, with your address and the date at the top (either centered or aligned left), followed by the name, title, company and address of the recipient doublespaced below that (aligned left). Most software programs such as Word offer business letter templates.
  • Avoid cuteness, colloquialisms, puns and off-color humor at all costs.
  • Don’t be wishy-washy. You won’t inspire confidence with phrases such “I think I’m qualified,” or “I believe I’m the right person for the job,” so leave them out.
  • Keep the letter to a single page, usually no more than three or four paragraphs. Employers are busy people. They don’t have time to read more than a few graphs. If you are having trouble making everything fit on one page, that’s a tip that your letter is too long.

Introductory paragraph: Your first paragraph should grab the reader, motivate him or her to move on to your resume and clips. You can do that in three ways:

  • An anecdote. Using a personal experience can illustrate your talents as a journalist. Your anecdote can be about a great story you broke, the way you pursued a particular source or something more personal that inspired you to enter journalism. The trick is to keep is short – it’s only the introduction.
  • A personal reference from someone the reader respects is another good opener. Examples would include a colleague, a former boss or a well-regarded professor. Make sure you have the person’s blessing before including him or her in the letter. Example: John Smith, city editor of the Maryland Banner, recommended I contact you.
  • Get right to the point. If you lack an anecdote or a personal connection, simply introduce yourself and say why you would be worth hiring. Be confident.

Middle paragraphs: Highlight your experience, but don’t exaggerate. Don’t repeat your resume -- complement it. Talk briefly about stories you’ve written or experiences you’ve had that make you a great candidate for this particular job. Talk about your ambition and what motivates you. Avoid listing courses you’ve taken. JOUR 320 won’t have much meaning to an employer, and listing your college coursework just makes you seem young and inexperienced. Instead, talk about the skills you’ve gained in JOUR 320: you’ve learned to interview public officials, write a profile piece, bang out a story on deadline.

Closing paragraph: Wrap it up. Thank the editor or producer for considering you. Let them know you’ll be in touch in order to schedule an interview. Be sure to sign your letter.

Thank-you letters and e-mails: Good manners never go out of style. If an employer has taken the time to interview you, be sure to send a follow-up letter or e-mail thanking him or her for the time. A letter is more formal than an e-mail, but also more impressive. You can also use this letter as an opportunity to supply some fresh examples of your work.