Your letter of interest will introduce you to a prospective employer, which means it needs to be excellent. An excellent letter will succinctly explain your qualifications and enthusiasm for the job, your motivation for applying, and any prior connections you may already have with the organization or its current employees.

A few basic points to keep in mind when writing a cover letter:

Keep it short and sweet. Your letter should be no longer than a page. With few exceptions, most readers will spend only 10 seconds or so with your letter before deciding whether your application deserves closer inspection or should be tossed in the trash. Therefore, the fewer words you can use to get your main points across, the better.

Use normal fonts and styles. Use Times New Roman because it’s the easiest font for the human eye to read on paper. While some sans-serif fonts like Arial and Helvetica look better on computer screens, they’re harder to read on hard-copy documents. And since employers actually do print hard copies of the best applications, you’ll want to make sure that yours is easily legible on screen and off. Also, stick with 11- or 12-point font size and 1-inch margins.

Proofread. Triple-check your spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word usage. Be on the lookout for missing words as well, which spellchecking software rarely notices. Even a single egregious error in your letter can make you look lazy or ignorant. The ability to pay attention to details is one of the most highly valued attributes for any job, so slip-ups here could kill your candidacy before it even begins.

No big blocky paragraphs of text. Less is more. Write your letter so that the main points can be gleaned in 5 seconds or less. Your letter simply needs to highlight your qualifications and motivation for the job in order to whet readers’ appetites and get them to look at your resume.

Be enthusiastic, not hyper. It’s important that your cover letter convey your genuine enthusiasm for the position, since no one wants to hire a lackluster employee who’d rather be elsewhere. At the same time, too much enthusiasm can also turn readers off. Over enthusiastic letters can convey to readers that you have poor communication skills or, worse, that you’re lying about your actual level of interest. So no exclamation points or question marks, and no using the words fantasticbrilliantstunningawesome, or amazing.

Finally, never:

  • Include photos (especially of you) in your letter
  • Use any colors other than black text and white backgrounds