Crafting an Awesome Cover Letter
Today’s job hunters will likely find themselves uploading documents into an automated system and wondering: is a cover letter even necessary or is it just a quaint relic from the past that should find its place in the dustbin?
While some electronic systems won’t allow you to add a cover letter, experts say that whenever possible you should include one—it allows you to not only introduce yourself but can help you stand out amid a faceless flock of candidates.
“A cover letter won’t get you hired, but done properly it will get your resume read with serious attention,” says Martin Yate, author of The New York Times best seller Knock ‘em Dead Cover Letters.
“A resume merely describes your experience,” says Dan Schawbel, best-selling author of Promote Yourself and Me 2.0 . “A cover letter showcases why specifically you want that job.”
But putting together an effective cover letter can be a challenge—you often need to hook the recruiter in as little as five to 45 seconds as they skim through a ream of applications. Below are some tips to help you create a letter that will not only turn heads but hopefully get you in the door for an interview.
Cover the basics. Consider the cover letter the first test of one of the most commonly requested job skills—the ability to communicate effectively. “It shows employers how you present yourself overall,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert for Monster.
Watch your font. A recruiter doesn’t want to have to upgrade her eyeglass prescription to read your cover letter. “Don’t use an eight point font,” said Yate. Also, avoid fancy or curly fonts, which are not only distracting but might not show up correctly on everyone’s screen. Arial and Times are the gold standard fonts for business communications for a reason.
Edit, edit, edit. Nothing will take you out of the running for a job faster than a poorly written cover letter. “If there are typos or grammatical errors in your cover letter, it shows employers you are not detail-oriented,” said Salemi. To avoid cringe-worthy lapses, edit carefully and keep in mind that while spell check is wonderful for fixing glaring spelling errors, nothing replaces a human set of eyes. Spell check doesn’t know the difference between two, to and too. It can also make its mistakes, case in point the candidate whose name Devang, who would have been listed as “Deviant” on a resume, had the mistake not been caught, said Yate. Enlist a friend to make sure no errors slip through. “We all know someone who is persnickety about grammar,” he said. Give him or her your resume to review.
Focus on content. The most effective cover letters are those that clearly differentiate you as a candidate and connect your business experience to the job you’re applying, said Schawbel. The information contained in a cover letter must answer why you’re applying for the position, what makes you a unique candidate, and how you hope to add value to the company through the role, he said. Captivate the employer by telling them specifically how you will add value from day one and achieve specific results.
Put the spotlight on the employer. Often applicants start out their cover letter by talking about themselves. Really, what you need to do is focus on the needs of the company that is doing the hiring, said Yate. Outline the skills they are looking for that you possess. For example, “I see that your company is looking for someone with a strong business to business communication skills,” said Yate. Identify the challenges of the job and talk about how you would fit in and be a problem solver for that organization.
Be concise. Because you’ve got to deliver your message quickly, a cover letter should assure the reader in four or five lines that he or she is going to see a resume that is relevant. “Employers only spend a few seconds perusing cover letters so you need to tie back to their question, ‘Why should we hire you?’ And in the case of interviewing, they’ll be asking, ‘Why should we interview you—what makes you qualified?’ Make it easy for them to say yes by providing an overview of what you bring to the table,” said Salemi.
Don’t get off track. “Often candidates focus too much on saying they’re interested in the job—by virtue of applying you’re interested,” said Salemi. “Or they squander the opportunity to highlight their selling points by not saying much at all other than they’re interested in the job and look forward to hearing from the employer soon.” Make sure your cover letter
keeps the focus where it belongs.
Customize your cover letter. “The biggest mistake job seekers make when writing a cover letter is lack of customization,” says Schawbel, “Most job seekers just keep reusing the same cover letters because they are lazy and/or are just submitting to so many job postings that they aren’t able to scale writing cover letters for all of them.” If a job is worth applying for, it’s worth customizing the cover letter, agreed Yate. Also, be certain to use the language the company uses. Change your resume and cover letter language to reflect the job posting as much as you possibly can, matching job titles or other items.
Stay positive. Got a big gap in your work history or another resume issue? Avoid the temptation to bring it up in your cover letter. “Don’t tell them what they might never ask,” said Yate. A cover letter should focus only on the positive.
Ultimately, you should think of the cover letter as your elevator pitch, said Salemi. “An effective cover letter succinctly highlights your accomplishments, skills, and experiences in a different way than your resume,” she says. Use it to help distinguish yourself from other candidates and to help the employer clearly see that you’re a match for the job.