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How to Write A Kick-Ass Cover Letter

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Stacks of Resumes & Cover LettersThere are two big pieces to the resume puzzle – the resume itself and the well-crafted cover letter. If your resume is the car, then your cover letter are the tires. Most people don’t think about the tires on their car but your tires are the only thing on your car that touches the road. Most people don’t think much about their cover letters, especially with so much job hunting online, but it’s important because it gives you the opportunity to relate your resume to the job. A listing of accomplishments is nice, especially if your accomplishments are many, but sometimes hiring managers need help figuring out why you might be the best fit for a job opening.

After you’ve figured out the template and written a few cover letters, the process will be very easy and you’ll be able to produce a good cover letter in just a few minutes. If the hiring manager never sees it, it’s only a few minutes lost. If the hiring manager does, it’s a great opportunity to present your skills and accomplishments in a way that matches the job opening.

This article is part of Bargaineering Career Week 2009, a week-long series focused on your career – how to find a job, how to tailor your resume, how to find the job opportunities and how to nail the interview. This article is the first article of day two – resume reconstruction.

Research The Company, Industry

Before you do anything, research the company and the industry they are in. It’s important for you to understand the company’s core, such as its mission and it’s values, as well as their history and current state of business. You may not necessarily use this in the cover letter but you want to understand if they emphasize anything in particular, so you can tailor the letter to emphasize those as well (as long as it makes sense). This will also be crucial should you land an interview.

Research The Job Position

The job listing will have a list of qualifications they are looking for and ones that are required. Be sure to take notes on both and ensure that you satisfy the job’s requirements. When you write your cover letter, you’ll want to emphasize some of the skills you posses that match their needs and complement their needs. You will also want to find the name of the hiring manager so that you can write it to a name, rather than a generic opening.

Writing The Cover Letter

The format of the letter should follow the business letter format and no more than one page. You can find various templates online but any one will do. Once you get the general format, it’s the content that will be crucial. Throughout the whole letter writing process, you’ll want to keep in mind that your cover letter is really a sales letter. You are selling yourself. If you’re familiar with copywriting, try to employ copywriting techniques in your cover letter.

An important step that is often missed is addressing the letter to an individual, rather than a generic “HR director” or “To Whom It May Concern.” That’s why it was important for you to research the job position and the hiring manager. When you address a person, you are able to connect with them better than a “Sir or Madam.”

The meat of the cover letter should contain three paragraphs:

  1. First paragraph should tell the employer why you’re writing in no more than two or three sentences. Don’t waste a sentence by telling the employer how you found out about a job because they won’t care, spend your words carefully.
  2. The second paragraph should explain your qualifications and match them to the requirements of the job opening, which you researched before. You want to be enthusiastic and highlight things are separate you from the competition. Emphasize how you would help them reach their goals and use specific examples if you can.
  3. The last paragraph should talk about next steps and entice the employer to call you. Keep things positive, ask for an interview and leave your contact information, and do it in fewer than three or four sentences. Be sure to be courteous and reserve one of those sentences to thank them for their time and consideration.

Then end the letter with a simple “Sincerely” or “Regards” followed by your signature and your name.

Proofread

This is absolutely crucial. You want to go through the letter carefully to review it for spelling and grammatical errors. If it’s your first cover letter, have a friend review it for any errors. When you write something, it’s often difficult to find errors even if you look it over a half dozen times. In addition to grammar and spelling, review the letter for any informal and weak language. Avoid “I thinks” and either remove them entirely or replace them with emphatic qualifiers, like “I am certain.” As for informal language, this isn’t an informal email, it’s a formal business letter. You don’t want to sink your chances by using unprofessional phrases.

Cover letters are very important and all too often overlooked. With these tips, your cover letter will stand out and give you a better chance against the competition when it comes to landing an interview. If you have cover letter tips I’ve missed, please let us know about them in the comments!

(Photo: wwworks)

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21 Responses to “How to Write A Kick-Ass Cover Letter”

  1. Beth says:

    Great post, but I’m not sure that I agree with the point about not mentioning where you heard about the job. When we were hiring, it was good to know which of our recruitment techniques got attention. (i.e. niche sites versus job boards, etc).

    I also think people should mention if the job was referred to them by a colleague — networking is key! Besides, many of the companies in my area have employee referral programs, so it can translate into some cash for your reference if they hire you.

    • zapeta says:

      I know that I have mentioned where I heard about the job in all of my successful job applications.

  2. redivelli says:

    I am currently struggling with my views of a cover letter. I have talked to HR folks who say they have never read a cover letter. At bigger companies they get so many resumes it’s nearly impossible to read them all. I have been told there are some places who just discard cover letters so that resumes can be scanned into a database, where it will be sorted by a computer for key words.

    As for now I continue to include cover letters. I generally write to the manager of the department I am looking to hire into as well. I was able to bypass the horrific screening process for my current internship by going out to lunch with the guy in charge. I agree with Beth, network network network….

  3. CreditShout says:

    I agree with Beth,
    When people apply I would love to know where they came from so I know where our money for recruiting is being best spent. If you’re a small business posting listings on job sites like Monster and others can quickly add up so it’s important from my end to know where I’m getting the most bang for my buck. Since I won’t be interviewing every applicant or looking through their entire resume, having this in the cover letter works best on my end.

  4. anthonyvogl says:

    One of my own pet peeves is passive sentences. In Microsoft Word, use the Readability statistics to help make your cover letter more effective. The best example is “will be” vs. “is.” It can be fun to increase the reading level of your letter, and at the same time raise the chances of it being brought to the top of the pile.

  5. ziglet19 says:

    Thanks for this article. I always have a hard time with the cover letter, and frankly, it’s often an afterthought after putting together my resume. I am going to save this article for any future cover letters I may have to write.

    • Jim says:

      You’re very welcome ziglet19, I do think it’s one of the most overlooked parts of the process but one of the most important because it’s a first impression.

  6. Here’s something a little different that I’ve done with some success. Try sending a letter without a resume. Call it a strong cover letter, but it should summarize your abilities to fill the job with an emphasis on further discussions of the job and your qualifications.

    You can write something like “my resume is quite lengthy, but here’s a summary of my skills, here’s what I believe I can do for your company, please call me at your earliest convenience and perhaps we can explore this further.”

    A good letter may get the interviewer to pick up the phone and call you, at which point you have three advantages: direct contact, a request for more information and the prospect of multiple contacts. The point is to approach the hiring process as though you’re entering a multi-step business deal.

    Everyone sends a resume and cover letter, and at that point the employer has all that they need to begin comparing your resume to dozens or hundreds of others. Using a letter as an ad can invite a phone interview which exponentially speeds up the process. The central idea is to begin a dialogue with someone in a position to hire you and as much as we like to think that resumes do that, they don’t always.

    Try it and see what happens.

    • Jim says:

      Are there types of jobs where this is more successful than others? The flip side to your argument is that they may only see a cover letter and discard it because they don’t have time to wait for a resume. I like the novel approach and it’s worth a try, I just wanted to arm someone with your successes to give them more confidence this would work.

      • Those are good points. You wouldn’t do this as a matter of course, but it would be worth the effort if you’re not having luck going the more traditional route.

        It works best with small employers or for jobs you’re very well qualified for and can speak the language of the business fluently. A resume won’t necessarily show that. You have to come accross as being the solution to a problem–harder to do with large employers of course.

        Sometimes a resume can be a disqualifier since employers use them to cull the list of prospects. Sometimes it’s best to get them interested before sending a resume. It’s a back door approach in a job market crowded with good looking and often embellished resumes.

        It’s killer with a reference included in the letter. I’ve had a couple of situations where I’d gotten far enough into the hiring process that the resume became an after thought.

        It isn’t a one size fits all but it’s certainly worth trying.

  7. Keep it short guys. The average time someone spends on your resume is 7 seconds… how long do you think they can spend on your cover letter?

    3 paragraphs, 3 sentence each paragraph, make it punchy.

  8. Wilma says:

    Good article and very helpful comments. Thanks every one.

  9. hoht says:

    Very informative, did not know a cover letter was so important thanks.

  10. saladdin says:

    I once got an interview for a job in which I was WAY under qualified for because of my cover letter. The guy that interviewed me came out and said “The resumes and cover letters I have received are full of spelling errors.” Of course I didn’t get the job because I was really not qualified. But I got a shot at it because of a well written letter. You really can’t ask for more then a shot.

    saladdin

  11. zapeta says:

    I think it really helps to know the field you’re applying for and how many people work in it as you construct a cover letter. My field is relatively small and so I think a cover letter would get a lot more attention than a cover letter for a job where could be hundreds of applicants. Since there are less letters each one will receive more attention and so a cover letter of 3 paragraphs of 3 sentences each might be way too short. Again, what it really comes down to is doing your research.

  12. cover letter shmover letter…if you are applying online (specifically related to an online posting) they are a thing of the past unless they are specifically requested.

    keyword resume scanners dont scan cover letters and we all know thats the first cut.

    • Beth says:

      I’m curious — is this a U.S. thing? Everywhere I’ve applied here in Canada seems to requires them (online application or not).

  13. Shock says:

    A great company research site is Glassdoor.com. It is a free inside look at over 37,000 companies. Company Salaries, Reviews, and Interviews posted anonymously by employees. You get an subjective insiders look into a company.

  14. Krista says:

    Thanks for such an informative article. I happened to notice a mistake while reading, and thought I’d bring it to your attention:

    “Cover letters are important and all to (should be too) often overlooked.”

    It’s an easy oversight. Thanks again for the great article!


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