As one of your most powerful job search tools, a well-written, targeted resume markets you. But first, a good cover letter (carefully crafted & customized) needs to help open the door. And even nowadays, with automated resume screenings your first hurdle to cross, a good cover letter can still make a big difference.
It’s true that impersonal, heartless computer screenings may keep your application from ever getting seen by human eyeballs. (So it pays to try to find direct connections to bypass those computers.) But once you make it through to a real-person, a strong cover letter can get your resume from the maybe pile to the “set up an interview” pile. And follow you all along the interview process.
Good cover letters target company needs
Yes … we naturally see cover letters as a place to talk about ourselves and how great we are. And while you certainly want to do that, one critical piece you need to remember is this: the company is zeroing in on how well you fit THEIR needs — and not how interesting or fun you might be as a person.
When I screened resumes, I would often get long, heartfelt cover letters from people who want to tell me their life stories. Or focus on some aspect of who they are at the core of their being. All this to get me to pick their resume.
But are they really thinking about how willing a reader might be to wade through all that? And what a cover letter really needs to do? Not just pique interest in a stranger’s life story, but how you and your life story somehow have all coalesced to give them the exact person they need at this precise moment.
And that means they have to see that you get who they are, and not just who you are. So as quickly as possible they need to sense that you fit their job. A good cover letter points them precisely to key matching areas, while also giving them a feel for who you are — but who you are as a potential member of their team.
Help screeners quickly see match
On average, the resume screener only takes a few seconds to look through each cover letter and resume and make the all-important decision. Your job, first and foremost, is to grab their attention by making it easy for them to see the match.
How? By tailoring your letter to their specific needs (rather than using some generic cover letter that’s usually a waste of everyone’s time.) Use the job requirements mentioned in the ad, and show the screener quickly and clearly where they intersect with your own job experience.
And a “key” part of a good cover letter is using key words and key phrases, the same as you would on a strong resume. Again, you want to make it easy for them to recognize the fit for the position quickly, so let the job description guide you here too.
After the basic intro paragraph, put together 2 or 3 concise, interesting sentences (or bullet points), zeroing in on those points that will get a screener to stop and take a longer look at your resume — maybe even for the second time. (Sometimes we do really quick first screens and then come back to those maybes that left us curious — in a good way.)
10 basic cover letter writing tips
Your resume and cover letter present a picture of who you are and, more importantly, who you will be for the company. Again as with a resume, it aims toward your future goal of working there and not just a non-targeted rehash the past.
- A great cover letter is your best chance to get noticed! This is your opportunity to sell yourself. And, if your resume isn’t as strong as you would wish, your cover letter can help you help them to realize why you are precisely the right person for the job. So take the time to tailor it to this particular job and do NOT use some obviously general cover letter that will get tossed (along with your resume) in a second.
- Start with a proper greeting. Dear Mr. or Ms. (or appropriate title) if you have their name. If not, try hard to find it. Otherwise, use something safe like Dear Hiring Manager or Dear Recruiter and not “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”.
- Make the first line interesting. Your cover letter needs to stand out. So why are you making it so boring? I’m not suggesting you make the first line so attention-grabbing you risk annoying them. But you can at least point out someone you have in common. Or something you read about the company. Or lead with a strength that is right on target with the job description … and then go on to say that’s why you’re so interested in this particular job.
- Tell them what makes you so special for THIS job. Usually in the second and or third (if necessary) paragraph.
- Use bullets if needed. If you have a few strengths you want to emphasize, use bullets rather than writing long, wordy paragraphs. Especially strengths that point directly to their job opening. Your cover letter needs to focus their attention FAST and get them curious enough to want to speak with you so you can sell yourself. And that’s all a good cover letter needs to do.
- Remember to use those key words and phrases! Again, don’t assume they’ll connect the dots anyway. Sometimes the person who first reads your resume and cover doesn’t know all that much about the actual job.
- Use the last paragraph to thank them for their time and consideration and try to establish a follow-up/next steps. You might say you’ll contact them in some number of days or simply say you can be reached at 555-555-5555 or your email address and look forward to hearing from them soon. Or some such statement, depending on things like the company size, industry, formality of its hiring process, and if you got there through networking.
Note: You can imagine that no company appreciates hundreds of people all saying they’ll follow up by calling. Then again … sometimes it works to do that. So that decision is all up to you. )
- Close with sincerely or best or something similar. As long as it’s within the general realm of commonly-used closings, you’re fine. No need to get too creative here.
- Keep your cover letter short! You’re not trying to tell your whole story. Just the highlights — especially those that relate to the job description and company.
- Again … check for typos! Just one typo can undo all your hard work. Not fair, but true. At least in some cases. Why risk it?
A few more thoughts
Sometimes, especially when you’ve been trying for a while and feel like you have nothing to lose anymore, you can really go all out with a cover letter. Someone I know was looking for months for her first writing job, and was tired of getting rejections.
So one day she sat down and wrote to her dream employer (a magazine) without thinking about every word. She just told it as it came out (with edits later). She said they were the only magazine within their company’s publishing group she’d even consider working for — and went on like that. Of course, still pointing out how well she fit their needs.
Well … she not only got their attention, she got the job offer! But here’s part of what I really think happened: I think she finally let her real voice shine through, rather than going into formal (stiff) cover letter mode. So my last bit of cover letter advice is…
- Let your real self shine through in your cover letter! Don’t think you have to be bone dry or formal. If you feel enthusiasm, show it (without going hog wild, of course). Use real-sounding language — not slang. Just as I always suggest that when you interview you should be yourself, the same is true for a cover letter.
I hope some of these tips help you write a good cover letter that gets you the job you want. Good luck!
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