More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Cover Letters
What Your Cover Letter Should Say About You
To capitalize on your first impression and ensure a lasting impact, the cover letter is a handy tool - when wielded properly. If you've done your homework, perfected your writing skills and understand how to position yourself against other applicants, you've got nothing to fear. Here's what a cover lettershouldsay about you.
1. You Write Well
You'll make a good first impression by submitting a cover letter that is well-written and free of mistakes. Be sure to avoid typos, grammatical errors and misspelled words. As your first contact with the employer, the cover letter really serves as a writing sample and proof (or not!) that you can organize your thoughts and communicate effectively.
2. You Understand and Respect the Employer's Busy Schedule
You'll win points immediately if you keep your letter short, sweet and to the point. Open with a solid lead-in statement that grabs the reader's attention. Be sure to avoid extraneous personal information. No one needs to know that in your spare time you also knit, juggle oranges and have won several prestigious hula hoop championships.
3. You Know How To Sell Yourself
With any sales pitch, the buyer wants to know "what's in it for me?" The same holds true for a cover letter. Use the cover letter to "sell" the employer on how they will benefit from your skills and experience, not how you will benefit from working for them. Explain how your skills will help meet company objectives: "In my current job I increased sales to Target by 23% by garnering an additional two feet of shelf space. I am confident that I can grow sales volume to meet your company's goals."
4. You Are Qualified for the Position
Your cover letter should outline the ways you specifically fit the qualifications needed for the position. However, don't just repeat what is on your resume. Offer concrete details demonstrating why you are the perfect person for the position: "My solid marketing background and four years of supervisory experience make me an ideal candidate for your Marketing Manager position."
5. You're Smart Enough Not to Send a Form Letter
How do you feel about the form letters you receive? Do they bore you? Offend you? Do you consider them junk mail? Hiring Managers feel the same way. Customize every letter to a specific company and a specific position. Take advantage of the opportunity to showcase both your personality and work ethic. Don't wast a first impression on a form letter, they can be spotted a mile away.
How to Write a Cover Letter: A Step-by-Step Guide
Three to five short paragraphs are all you need to create a dynamic cover letter. By making your cover letter as concise as possible, you demonstrate your ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Our guide takes you through each step of the letter-writing process.
Step 1 - The Salutation
- Address the letter to a name: "Dear Mr. Jackson." If you can't obtain the information by calling the company, using your company contacts, or through Linkedin, then use a title: "Dear Advertising Manager."
- Make sure the company address on your letter matches the one on your envelope.
Step 2 - Introductory Paragraph
- Open with a sentence that grabs the reader's attention. For example, explain how your skills uniquely qualify you for the job or that you are enthusiastic about the position or company.
- State what position you are applying for and where you learned about the job.
- Mention any contacts you have at the company by name and title: "Kim Jones, a coordinator in the Marketing Department, suggested I contact you.
Step 3 - Why I'm the Perfect Person for the Job Paragraph
- Be specific without repeating everything that is on your resume.
- Define how you can contribute to the company's success. Show your enthusiasm for the position and company How do your skills make you stand out?
- Use bullet points to match your experience with what the employer is looking for in the ad. Take care to use some of their specific words and phrases without going overboard.
Step 4 - Additional Background and Skills Paragraph
- Talk about any additional skills that you have (be brief!).
- Prove you've done research on the company and demonstrate how your background can help you meet current company objectives.
- State your practical work experience (as it pertains to the job; no one needs to know your entire teenage work history).
Step 5 - Closing Paragraph
- State when and how you will follow up on your letter: "I will call during the week of June 19th."
- Don't ignore a request for salary requirements-but be cautious. Give a broad range or write "negotiable." "My salary expectations are negotiable and competitive within the marketplace."
- Thank the employer for reviewing your materials.
Step 6 - Signature
- List your phone number and email address underneath your name. It makes it a lot easier to find.
Tips for Creating Great Cover Letter Content
Now that you've got the foundation, here are some helpful guidelines and tips for you to follow as you create your cover letter.
- Begin with an attention getter.
State immediately why you are qualified and what makes you stand out from the other job applicants. Don't drone on with irrelevant facts or useless fluff in the first paragraph. Your reader might never get to the "good stuff" further down.
- Keep the tone professional.
Written correspondence requires more formality than everyday speech. Be courteous. Don't use abbreviations or slang terms: "I've worked in LA (abbreviation) five years ago and it would be awesome (slang) to work in California again." Unless you're a professional comedian applying for a stand-up gig, don't joke or try to be funny. You want the employer to know you will take the job seriously.
- Be clear, not clever.
You may think you'll sound intelligent if you use large vocabulary words and lots of lengthy sentences…well, maybe. But you might also wind up appearing long-winded and bore your reader to tears. Stick with common words and crisp, concise sentences.
- Don't be afraid of action verbs.
Liven up your writing by using lots of action verbs to describe your career. Words like implemented, achieved, developed and created convey a sense of accomplishment.
- Customize each letter you write.
Whatever you do, don't use a form letter that sounds as if you mailed it to 100 employers. Always take the time to customize each letter for a particular position or company. If you send an obvious form letter, you'll look like someone who doesn't care what job you get. If you find that you don't have time to customize each cover letter then you are probably applying for too many positions, including ones that you are only marginally qualified for.
- Use the active voice.
The active voice takes responsibility. The passive voice, however, passes the buck. For example, "I accomplished this" sounds more direct than "it was accomplished." Here is an example of a passive voice sentence: "Accounting services and financial advice were provided for several clients over a period of three years." Try the active voice instead: "As an accountant and financial advisor for the past three years, I've worked with diverse clientele." Whenever possible, choose the active voice over the passive voice. It will give your writing more punch.
- Use bullet points.
Highlight your greatest strengths and biggest career accomplishments by setting them off with bullet points in the second or third paragraphs. By using bullet points, you'll attract the reader's attention to your best achievements, rather than letting them get lost in the text. Be careful not to go overboard here. If you have more than five bullet points then they cease being bullet points and begin to become a long, boring list.
- Embrace the power of the P.S.
Marketing studies have shown that most people will read the P.S. on a sales letter. Use this device to emphasize an important point: "P.S. My company was recently awarded "Vendor of the Year" by the Target account which I personally handle."
- Check your spelling and grammar.
We can't stress this enough: Spelling and grammatical errors are not acceptable! If you're not sure about something, look it up! Check all spelling carefully and don't rely on a computerized spell-check as your sole means of proofreading. The most common misspelling in cover letters and resumes is "manger" rather than "manager" and it will sail through spell check every time. Proofread your letter at least twice. Then get a friend to proofread it.
- Email your cover letter to a friend.
Make sure that the margins line up correctly. In about 15% of the cover letters we receive, they do not.
Top Cover Letter Mistakes
- Sending a form letter.
- Submitting personal photos.
- Forgetting to sign your cover letter.
- Including personal information that is not pertinent to the job you're seeking: "I haven't worked in eight months and I really need this job."
- Including personal statistics more suitable to a dating service than a job: "Single, Catholic, male, who enjoys bungie jumping in my speedo."
- Confessed shortcomings ("I know I don't have the experience you're looking for...").
- Mismatching company information; you send the letter to ACME Corporation but it makes reference to ABC Insurance.
- Failing to attach your resume.
- Incorrect spelling of names - including your own (yes, we've seen that).
- Ignoring a request for salary requirements when the ad specifically asks for it. You don't have to name an exact figure, but do include a range.
- Addressing your letter "To Whom It May Concern" instead of getting the right name.
A Big Warning
After going through all this, I am sorry to tell you that most hiring managers won't actually even look at a cover letter until they go through your resume. If they like what they see in your resume, then they'll read your cover letter. This means that your resume needs to be a complete and stand alone document. Never leave something out of your resume because "it's already in my cover letter." Spell it out in the resume or they may never get to it.
Cover Letter Checklist
Here is a quick checklist for you to review before sending out your next cover letter. Go ahead and ask yourself the following questions to make sure you haven't forgotten anything important.
- Have I proofread my letter at least twice for grammar, spelling and typographical errors?
- Is the letter addressed to a specific person? Did I include their correct title and have I spelled the person's name correctly?
- Is my letter confined to one page and no more than three to five short paragraphs?
- Does the cover letter focus on the needs of the employer and not on my own requirements, such as money or flexible hours?
- Do I have a copy of the cover letter for my own records?
- If salary information was specifically asked for, have I included it? (No need to mention salary if it was not requested.)
- Did I remember to attach my resume? About five percent of the time, we find that people have forgotten to attach them. That's the end of the road if the company is looking for "attention to detail."
Tom Keoughan ©2016
Tom Keoughan, President
26 Park Street, Suite 2001
Montclair, NJ 07042
Phone: 973-744-0818 Fax: 973-744-0775
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