Your cover letter is your opportunity to, succinctly, tell the employer why you are the best fit for the job. Think of it in terms of a personal marketing piece that augments your resume. A successful cover letter will convince a hiring manager that you are enough of a “fit” to for them to review your resume.
So here’s what every cover letter must cover:
- The Hello – Well duh, right? Of course you’re going to have some sort of salutation, but the point here is that you should do your research and get a name to send your letter to. Surf the company’s website, dig around LinkedIn, find someone you know at the company and ask them – really, do whatever it takes to send your letter and resume to a specific person. A hiring manager is going to pay much closer attention to a letter delivered directly to them addressed to Dear Mr. Stephens, rather than a “To Whom It May Concern” delivered with a pile of other similarly addressed letters.
- The Intro – Here’s where you must get their attention! In my old world of newspapers, this was called the lead – where you get across the who, what, where, when and why in such as way as to convince the reader to keep reading. The best way to do this is to quickly get across what it is you can do for them. So instead of just telling them the obvious in your intro paragraph – “I’m writing to apply to…”, instead use the intro to sell yourself – “Having designed 3 professional websites since graduating with a degree in web development last year, I am writing to express my interest in [Name of Position] with [Name of Company]. You will see on the enclosed resume that I have worked with top-tier eCommerce sites with challenges very similar to those of [Your Company].” Right away you’re telling them that you can help them with whatever problem they’re trying to solve by hiring for this position.
- The Proof – Now you need to back up that hard sell you just did in your intro. This paragraph should tie into your resume, but without being redundant. Give examples of relevant work you have done that directly tie to the types of competencies they are looking for. Again, be as succinct as possible – use a couple of bullets and only state examples that are relevant to the hiring company. It’s swell that you are an accomplished flamenco dancer, but if you can’t tie that talent specifically to the job (or you know for a fact that the hiring manager is a big fan), it’s best to leave it out.
- The Company – Show the hiring manager that you’ve done your research and understand the company’s goals and how your skills can help them be successful. You’ll need to go beyond the job description here – do some digging into the company website to get a better understanding of what makes them successful, where their competition lies, what they can do to lead their field. Sticking with the web developer example from above, one approach might look like this: “I’ve researched your company from a social media standpoint and see opportunities to close the gap between [your company] and [your top competitor]. This strategy worked well for me at my last site, increasing eCommerce traffic by 25%.”
- The Close – Keep it short and sweet. The key goal with your close is to quickly summarize what it is you bring to the table and why your particular skills will benefit the company. Close with a request to follow up at their convenience.
There’s a lot of territory to cover in 4 (5 max) paragraphs, but the good news is that once you’ve got one or two well-organized cover letters under your belt, future letters will be easy to pop off. Remember, the cover letter is the marketing piece that augments your resume. If you use your cover letter to specifically sell yourself for the position you are shooting for, you’ll show hiring managers that you’re worth taking a serious look at.
What to Include in a Cover Letter
The cover letter serves as the first introduction to an employer, and it is an opportunity to convey one's viability as a strong candidate as well as one's ability to communicate in a polished, professional manner. It notes the specific position targeted while showcasing relevant qualifications the job seeker has to offer. In addition, it allows a job seeker to further explain any unusual circumstances in his or her background (e.g., gaps in employment, a return to the workforce, or change in career focus), demonstrate professionalism, and attract an interview.
With this in mind, it is best to ensure the cover letter aligns with common expectations by limiting it to one page and addressing a specific individual whenever possible. Include the company name and the recipient's name and title. Even when applying to a blind ad or box number one can use the ad information to personalize a cover letter.
A well-written, employer-centric cover letter will typically consist of three main parts: the introduction, the body, and the closing (which ends with a compelling action or request).
The introduction: Whenever possible, indicate how you came to apply to the company, such as...
- responding to an advertised opening
- having identified the company through research (do not use this if you didn't do the research as it may be obvious to the employer)
- reading about the company or its executives in a publication
- receiving a referral from John Jones at XYZ company
The body: It is important to highlight your qualifications and strengths as they relate to the requirements of the position. Amplify or augment information contained in your resume (rather than merely repeating it) and include a few strengths or personal qualities.
The closing: If the position was unadvertised and the resume is unsolicited, indicate that you will follow up in a few days. If you are responding to an advertised position, indicate you are looking forward to the opportunity to discuss how you can contribute to the success of the organization.
It is important to balance the tone of your cover letter. You want to be professional yet cautiously assertive. While a resume does not conform to standard writing styles (e.g., using personal pronouns, articles, and complete sentences), a cover letter does! Lastly, remember to focus on the employer's needs rather than your own (e.g., indicate what skills you will bring to the position to get the job done, rather than what you expect the employer to do for you).