Job hunters often hire professional resume writers to design their resumes for them and in a competitive job market that’s never a bad idea. But just as important as your resume is your cover letter; it’s often the primary reason why your resume will be read by a potential employer . . . or not read.
While a resume is a fairly static document, cover letters need to be written in a variety of forms for the wide number of jobs you will be applying for. Each will have to have at least some degree of customization that will help to match your skills with the job you’re applying for.
It won’t be possible (or cost effective) to pay someone to write a cover letter for each and every job you’re applying for so you’ll have to master this skill for yourself. Here are some general guidelines to help you do that.
Give the cover letter your best effort.
A compelling cover letter is the bridge between your resume and a job posting and should always be given your best effort. It should never be seen as a one or two line transmittal form that merely announces the arrival of your resume. A well-worded cover letter is an opportunity to both enhance your resume and to increase the likelihood that it will be reviewed in greater detail.
It’s okay to have a basic format that you use in all or most of your cover letters, but you should customize it to suit each job that you are applying for based on the needs of the position and your ability to meet them.
Make it personal.
Wherever possible, get names and titles of the people in the company who are likely to make the hiring decision for the position you are applying for. Not only do names and titles make your approach more personal, but they also indicate that you’ve taken the time to do some research and find out who’s who in the organization.
Of course you won’t be able to do this with online applications or blind job ads, but it’s always worth the extra effort to do so when ever you can. A salutation of “Dear Mr. Jones” is much more likely to get consideration than “To whom it may concern.”
It may seem redundant since the information is contained in your resume, but be sure to include all relevant contact information in your cover letter. You want to be sure that replying to your cover letter and resume will be as easy as possible.
Get to the point.
Unless you’re applying for jobs as a writer, keep your cover letter fairly short and make your point in as few words as possible. A reviewer won’t have time to read your three page cover letter if hundreds of applications are coming in. Keep your cover letter to anywhere from three medium length paragraphs to not more than one page.
If you want to highlight certain skills consider doing so with bullet points for easy readability. In today’s workplace, brevity is a valuable talent in itself.
Tailor your cover letter to the job you’re applying for.
Your cover letter shouldn’t summarize your resume, but rather emphasize skills from your resume that will be important for the job. Carefully review the requirements in the job posting, then use your cover letter to explain why you’re the right person for the job.
This is especially important when you aren’t a “glove fit” for the position—and few people ever are—or if you’re trying to make a change from one career to another. A cover letter is your chance to shine a bright light on your qualifications for the job in question, and maybe even to minimize any factors that don’t quite conform to what the employer may be looking for.
Think of your cover letter as an advertisement—which is really what it is. You’re trying to sell the reader on why he or she should read your resume and why you’re the best person for the job. You never want your cover letter to look like blatant ad copy, but never forget that it is a sales piece, and should be constructed in a way that sells the reader on your candidacy.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s also important to realize when writing your cover letter that you aren’t trying to get the job at this point, but only an interview . You’ll want to provide enough information to pique their interest to learn more about you, but not so much that they might make a yay or nay decision based on the letter itself—which once again is where brevity enters the picture.
When applying for a job via email . . .
Unless a job posting specifically requires you to attach a cover letter with your resume, you should use the email itself as your cover letter and attach only the resume. Don’t assume that the reviewer will read your attachments sequentially—if you attach both, he or she may go for the resume first and ignore the cover letter completely. The cover letter will only be opened and read if the reviewer likes your resume and wants additional information.
Your email cover letter may be the only one the reviewer sees so make it good following all the steps above. You may be tempted to use HTML in an email cover letter, but its best avoided. Not all email systems will read your HTML, and some won’t pick up any HTML at all, distorting the appearance of your letter. If the email doesn’t get read because of the distortions, the resume might not either.
Keep copies of every cover letter you send out.
Unless you’re in the habit of revising your resume to each job you apply for, it’s probably a fairly standard document. A cover letter, on the other hand, will usually be customized with each application. Since it will be impossible to recall what you said in the cover letter to any particular employer, you should keep a copy of each in a file segregated either by employer or by position applied for or both.
You’ll want to be able to easily access a specific cover letter if and when the corresponding employer contacts you. A quick review of the letter just before or even during a phone interview will ensure that you and the interviewer will both be talking about the same job application, and that you’ll remember specifically what it was you wrote. If you can’t recall, the interview will probably end pretty quickly.
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Writing compelling cover letters is more art than science and can vary from one industry or career field to another. What tips do you have for writing an effective cover letter? Leave a comment below!