So you have found a job posting that you are really psyched about, and now you are sitting in front of your computer trying to begin your cover letter…and you are absolutely stumped. Where should you even begin?
Cover letters, in my opinion, are one of the most challenging and overlooked parts of the application process. Many candidates obsess over their resumes, tweaking small details endlessly, only to throw together a cover letter at the last second. While resumes are very important, a sloppy or poorly-executed cover letter can do just as much to hurt your chances as a bad resume.
Think of it this way: the cover letter exists to give a voice to you as a candidate and provide you with an opportunity to sell yourself. When I am looking through applications, I first spend about 10 seconds looking over the resume to see if the candidate meets the basic qualifications, then I will read over the cover letter to see if they are professional and articulate. The cover letter also tells me how they view themselves fitting into the position and what they perceive as their key selling points.
How can you write a cover letter that helps you land an interview? Think about some of these essential concepts when you are preparing your document:
Professional appearance is of the utmost importance. If the format of the cover letter is sloppy, then the hiring manager will probably not care about (or even read) the content. You must make sure that you are writing your letter in an appropriate business letter format. Strive to keep the letter to one page – remember that the recruiter only has a limited amount of time to read what you have submitted. And make sure that there are NO typos or grammatical errors!
For an added flair, you might consider using the same heading (with your name and contact information) on both your cover letter and your resume. This approach matches your application materials visually and helps to reiterate your personal brand.
Avoid Using a Template
One thing you absolutely want to avoid is using a template for your cover letter. It can be very tempting to write one blanket introduction that generally describes your qualifications for a variety of positions. However, this lure is a trap and employers can smell a generic cover letter from a mile away. Even if the letter looks professional, submitting a template indicates a lack of sincere interest in the position. Are you applying to so many different jobs that you could not take the requisite time (30 minutes to 1 hour) to write a unique letter for each opening? Whether that is or is not the case, you have to be aware of what subliminal messages you might be sending when using a template cover letter!
Incorporate Info from the Job Posting
On that note, let’s discuss one approach for customizing your cover letter, which is to incorporate information found in the job posting. For example, many job postings have a bulleted list of qualifications the employer is seeking in a candidate. These lists are often great resources for you to leverage when deciding what to emphasize in your cover letter. You should look over these important qualifications and select 2-3 key themes that you match up with particularly well. Then use those themes to create an outline for your cover letter.
In execution, it might look something like this: “I noticed in the job description that you are seeking a candidate with great time management skills and experience in leading a team. At my last position at ACME Enterprises, I utilized these skills quite extensively.” From there, you would probably want to expand on your story a bit, which brings me to my next point…
Use Specific Examples
Nothing makes your experience seem more tangible than real, specific examples. Citing specific stories where you have applied the relevant skills helps the employer understand the breadth and depth of your experience. In particular, you want to focus on any results that you could mention to communicate your success.
Continuing the ACME example above, you might say something like: “I noticed in the job description that you are seeking a candidate with great time management skills and experience in leading a team. In my last position at ACME Enterprises, I utilized these skills quite extensively. During my time as a Product Development Intern, I coordinated a team of 5 associates to complete a variety of time-sensitive projects. My work earned me recognition as the 2012 Intern of the Year and helped me develop the skills that will be vital for success in your company.”
Remember, you do not have time to walk the employer through your entire resume in the cover letter. I recommend selecting 2-3 of your most powerful (and relevant) examples and sharing them in the manner outlined above!
Focus on Fit
Lastly, strive to emphasize fit as much as possible throughout your cover letter. This could occur in your introduction (“As a marketing professional with experience in sales, I believe I am a perfect fit for this position.”), at the end of every body paragraph (“These examples illustrate my attention-to-detail, time management skills, and work ethic – all of which are important for success at your company.”), and in your conclusion.
Your ultimate goal is to communicate to the hiring manager that you realistically understand the needs of the position and convince him or her that you have the necessary skills/experience to succeed in the job. This means you may need to research the position/company/industry to further develop your understanding of the role. View the time spent researching as an investment – if your well-crafted application results in an interview, the information you obtain will only help you excel during that phase of the process as well!