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Building the Better Burger: Cover Letters

We’ve done all the necessary preparation and have our philosophy of building the better burger.

Here’s the structure I suggest for your cover letter (and I like using block paragraph format–saves space and looks cleaner):

Your street address (notice your name is not here)
Your City, State and Zip

[one space]


[one space]

Contacts name, Title
Street Address
City, State and Zip

[one space]

Salutation (avoid “Dear” and write “Mr. Smith:” or “Ms. Doe:” — do NOT sure “Mrs.” If you don’t know the person’s name, even after diligently searching for it, write “To Whom It May Concern:”)

Paragraph 1 (Intro: two sentences):

  • Sentence one–this is your grabber statement. It serves as your chance to tell the employer how you heard of the position and/or mention a personal connection you have with the organization.
  • Sentence two–this is your thesis and tells the reader what you are about to prove and in which order. It should be direct and confident without being arrogant or wishy-washy. You have the skills/abilities they need and you are going to prove that to them in this letter.

    Here’s an example:
    “Brian Adams, the director of environmental policy office, recently told me of the Management Analyst position in the Human Capital Office. My research, analysis, and project management abilities make me an excellent candidate for this position.”

Paragraphs 2-4 (Body Paragraphs):

  • These paragraphs support your thesis NOT by summarizing your resume, but by making connections for the employer and they must be in the order you gave in your thesis.
  • The most important part of these paragraphs are their topic sentences.
    It may seem silly that I’m mentioning the importance of Topic Sentences, but I’ve seen far too many bad ones to skip this.

    Each topic sentence should tell the reader what the paragraph is about. Simple? Of course.

    Too often though, we box ourselves in or we don’t stick to the topic at hand. If you write a topic sentence that is specific to each of the skills you mentioned in your thesis, but not too specific that you can’t make connections for the employer.

    For example, from our thesis example above, the first body paragraph should be about research. Here is a Goldilocks look at possible topic sentences:

    Too broad: “Research has played a big part in my life.”

  • Too specific: “While working as the research assistant at the Department of Commerce, I developed strong research skills.” — this sentence says you will talk ONLY about this experience.
    Just right: “Throughout my professional and academic careers, I developed strong research abilities.”

    The last example, gives you the ability to talk about how professional and academic experiences relate to you research abilities. You could talk about past work, volunteer opportunities, class group work, etc.

  • These paragraphs often are 3-6 sentences, but can be longer or shorter (never just one sentence though).

Paragraph 5 (Conclusion: 2-4 sentences):

  • The first sentence of this paragraph is a restatement of your thesis: “Given my research, analysis, and project management abilities, I know I am an excellent candidate for the Management Analyst position.”
  • This paragraph should end with you thanking them for their time, but it can also include transitional thoughts like “I look forward to learning more about this position with a personal interview” or “I will contact your office in two weeks to verify you received my application.” These are not necessary.
  • You can also include your contact information in this paragraph, but it is not necessary.

[one space]


[2-4 spaces]
Your signature

Do not include “Enclosures” at the end. That’s not necessary and takes up space.

There it is…your effective cover letter. And just in time for lunch.

I’m excited to hear from those in HR on this structure/style. Naturally, if this doesn’t work, I need to update my processes….after lunch, of course.

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Steve Cottle

This is really helpful, Paul! It’s often difficult, even after scouring websites to determine the right name to include in the salutation. What are your thoughts between including a name, but with a chance you’re directing it at the wrong person (e.g. a recruiter, instead of someone who will be making a decision on the actual hiring and may negatively view this) vs. the very generic “to whom it may concern,” which I’ve been told in the past to avoid at all costs?

Paul Binkley

Glad you found this information useful.

As for addressing the letter the appropriate person–to the best of your ability, find the right contact or at least one of them. For example, a friend of mine is running a search now and the job announcement for his position stated “Send applications to the assistant director of policy.” With just a few clicks, applicants should be able to find that person’s name. In fact, my friend told me that he is discounting those applications who do not use his name. And if you can’t find that information on your own, your network may have the info, so reach out to them.

Much of the time, though, it’s next to impossible to find the actual person hiring the position. In those cases, I wouldn’t fret too much over the name. In fact, an organization is recruiting our students for a position now for which there will be several people making the hiring decision. In this case, I suggest that applicants address their letters to the head of HR.

The goal really is to avoid “To Whom It May Concern” as best you can. Sometimes, though, that’s not possible. Personally, I think if an organization won’t consider you simply for using that phrase I probably don’t want to work for them.

You know what…let’s ask the blogosphere what they think….and get their suggestions for salutations.