Writing the Killer Cover LetterWritten by Tracy L. Doerr
Writing a cover letter might seem intimidating at first. But it is really your opportunity to shine. It is where you show your potential employer how your skills and accomplishments will fit their needs. “The key purpose of a cover letter is to get the employer’s interest, to read your attached resume and to invite you in for an interview,” says Barbara Simmons, a counsellor in the career and employment services at George Brown College in Toronto, Canada.
There are countless books, Web sites, and computer programs that supply examples of cover letters to fit every job hunter’s need. They provide an excellent starting point, but it is a good idea to tailor your letter to your own job search. Here are nine points to keep in mind when writing an attention-getting cover letter.
9 tips for writing the killer cover letter:
- Getting started. Your cover letter is a foot in the door. Now is the time to make a great first impression, to stand apart from the other candidates. Think of the paper you present yourself on is like the clothes you will wear once you get that interview. During your job search you always want to present a clean and professional package.If you are faxing or mailing your cover letter and resume, use white, plain standard size (8 ½” X 11″) quality laser-bond paper. Colored paper does not always fax well. Both should be typed, not hand-written (except for your signature at the bottom of the letter), usually in a 12-point font. Times New Roman is ideal. The letter should also be free of white-out or pen corrections. Make sure the paper and envelope are clean. Coffee stains won’t make a good impression-even if you are applying to Starbucks.If you are emailing your package, avoid using attachments. Ideally it should be copied and pasted into the body of the email-in plain text format. And don’t forget to put the job title in the subject heading.
- “Whom it concerns” doesn’t work in human resources. To insure your cover letter doesn’t end up in the recycling bin, do your homework about the company. For example, if you are writing a prospecting letter for a job that is not advertised you might not have a contact name. Never address a letter to “Whom it concerns.” You can either phone to get the hiring manager’s name or, go to the company’s Web site. Names and contact information are usually listed under the “About Us” link.Double check the spelling of the names of people, departments, and, of course, the company. And make sure that you have the right e-mail, fax or mailing address. Nothing is more frustrating than crafting the perfect resume and cover letter only to have it not reach the person who has the power to hire.
- Introduction. Human resource managers are swamped with applications so you need to separate yourself from the other job hunters right away. The first sentence should entice the reader to read further. Your first paragraph should state your purpose (The recruiter might be hiring for several positions-don’t forget to mention the job title) as clearly as possible.
- Keep it short. The ideal cover letter should never exceed one page, and is usually two to four brief paragraphs. Keeping your letter short and to-the-point demonstrates that you have strong communication skills and are focused. Both are desirable qualities managers look for in an employee.
- Sell yourself. This is the entire purpose of your cover letter. Carefully read the job description. Ask yourself why you want the job and how the position fits into your overall career goals. Then write a paragraph outlining one or two specific examples of how your skills and experiences will fit the company’s needs.Show your enthusiasm and knowledge of the position, the company and the industry. Demonstrating to the hirer your eagerness will set you apart from those sending generic letters.
- Accentuate the positive. As described in point 6, the purpose of your cover letter is to convince the recruiter that you are a perfect fit for their needs-even if you think the position is a little bit out of your reach. Keep the letter positive by stressing your skills that can be applied to the job.
- Eagle-eye it. Proofread
Even the most qualified candidate might be rejected if there’s a typo in the cover letter. Don’t rely on spell check alone. Carefully proofread your letter at least twice then give it to someone else who has strong writing skills. Even if your letter is free of spelling errors, grammatical and punctuation mistakes also makes a bad impression.
- Remember me? Many job seekers never follow up after sending a resume. If the job posting lists a phone number, indicate you will call at specified time to arrange an interview. Then do so. Also consider a follow-up e-mail if you sent your resume electronically.
- Don’t be mysterious Final Thought. Don’t forget to include your contact information. Include your full name, address, telephone number and email address so they can reach you.
- 175 High-Impact Cover Letters, by Richard H. Beatty, John Wiley & Sons, 256 pages.
- Cover Letter Magic, by Wendy S. Enelow and Louise Kursmark, Just Works.
- Cover Letters That Knock ‘Em Dead, 2000 by Martin John Yate, Adams Media Corporation, 304 pages.
- Get Wired, You’re Hired, by Mark Swartz, Prentice-Hall of Canada Ltd., 288 pages.
It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018