Your cover letter presents your intentions, qualifications, and availability to a prospective employer in a succinct, appealing format. It's your first chance to make a great impression, a personalized letter indicates you are serious about your job search. Your resume can give the nitty-gritty of dates, places of employment, and education but your cover letter must entice the reader to take the extra few minutes to consider you when faced with hundreds and thousands of candidates for any one job opening.
1. Do you really need a cover letter?
You bet! Just as you would never just show up unannounced at a prospective employer's door, your resume should Never just appear solo on a decision- maker's desk. Your cover letter is your first opportunity to introduce yourself, present your qualifications, and show the search committee you are a potential candidate for the advertised position.
2. Personalize it to the company.
Anyone can reproduce a "canned" cover letter and hope for the best. Instead, take a few minutes to personalize your letter by showing that you are really serious about working for the companies you are contacting. State the reason that you are interested in working for that particular company. Mention a department, a new project the company is involved in, an acquisition the company has made. Show that you have done your homework. Address the cover letter to a specific individual whenever possible.
3. Why are you sending your resume and cover letter?
Cover letters should be clear and to the point. Include the specific job title, two to three reasons why your experience makes a good fit, and a brief outline of career highlights.
4. Highlight your strengths!
You may be a great person and never call in sick, but prospective employers really want to know why they should consider you for this position. Brag a little! Give a few facts, list relevant skills, and state accomplishments on your present or most recent jobs that will be impressive. Increased overseas sales by 93%? Negotiated new financial leases/loans? Implemented new training programs which reduced staff turnover by 15%?
5. State your intentions and qualifications right up front.
If you expect a senior personnel manager or recruiter to wade through a mish-mash of information on your cover letter before understanding why you are sending your resume, chances are, it will never happen.
6. What makes you different?
Emphasize your skills, talents, and experiences to show how you would be a valuable addition to the team. If you have relevant volunteer or professional experience include it briefly in your cover letter. Example: An accountant who serves as volunteer treasurer for a nonprofit community health organization; an international sales rep who has lived in Europe and Asia and speaks several languages.
7. No negative information!
Never include personality conflicts with previous employers, pending litigation suits, or sarcastic remarks in your cover letter. If you are bad-mouthing your present place of employment, interviewers may fear a repeat performance if they hire you.
8. When should you include salary/relocation information?
The rule of thumb is to always include salary requirements and/or salary history in the cover letter if a prospective employer requests it. For example: My salary requirements are $60,000-$75000 (negotiable). Or: My current salary is $53,000 at XYZ corporation. To eliminate this information from your cover letter may justify your resume getting tossed out. Never include salary and relocation information on your resume, only address this information in your cover letter.
9. Action Steps to Take
Take a proactive approach in your cover letter. State the fact that you are available for a personal interview; give your home, work, e-mail, and/or cell phone numbers where you can be reached; note that you will follow up by phone (where possible) to provide any additional information required.
10. Be direct!
A professionally written cover letter and resume can open the doors to your next position on the corporate ladder, as well as a new career in a different field. A clean, error-free presentation combined with strong phrasing and solid facts will encourage the reader to review the attached resume and call you in for an interview.
Want to make a strong statement with your cover letter? Click here for expert advice
Don’t stick to a template
You could easily Google “cover letter template” to get some ideas on how to write it. Don’t.
“You need to think about your audience,” said Kristen Fitzpatrick, the managing director of career and professional development at Harvard Business School. “Who’s reading it? How do you capture their attention enough so they move you from one pile to another?”
This is your time to show your communication skills and your personality. You must make the case that the other 99 percent of applicants don’t have what you have. Following a template, or otherwise putting little effort into making your letter stand out, suggests you’re just another applicant.
Don’t rehash your résumé
Focus on the organization you’re writing to and the job description of the open position. If you nail your cover letter, the hiring manager will end up reading your résumé anyway, so don’t waste precious space duplicating it by going down the list of where you’ve worked.
“It’s to complement your résumé, not repeat it,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Cover letters where you’re just rewriting the content of your résumé aren’t effective.”
Instead, you could list some specific examples of projects you’ve worked on, and explain what you learned from them and how that knowledge would apply to the open position. Or you could offer some new ideas, showing from the start that you understand the company’s goals and would bring creativity.
(Related: Getting past the first cut with a résumé that grabs digital eyes)
Don’t state the obvious
Read your letter again, and zap any clichés or platitudes that don’t say something meaningful about you, the position or the company.
As an example: Don’t say you’re a “hard worker.” Everyone says that, and it would be easy to lie about if you weren’t, making it a meaningless sentiment to include. It merely takes up space that could be better spent on something that actually sets you apart from the other candidates.
“It’s not even worth saying,” Ms. Fitzpatrick said. “You’ll show you’re a hard worker by going above and beyond in writing a letter.”
Do your research
This requires going past the first page of Google results.
You could go to a library to sift through professional databases that might have more information, or get coffee with someone who works at the company you’re applying to. Show a familiarity with recent projects, acquisitions and public statements. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but a few sentences to show you’ve put time into it could go a long way.
If you’re not preparing for something as crucial as a cover letter, why would they trust you would prepare for an important meeting?
Focus on what you can offer them
A lot of applicants spend too much time talking about why they love the company, Ms. Fitzpatrick said.
“How many letters does Apple read that say, ‘I couldn’t live without my iPhone’? Probably a lot,” she said. “So you want to show you are unique and you’ve done your research.”
You do want to make it clear that you respect the company and explain why you’re interested, but the focus should be on what you can do for them.
“You want to avoid too many ‘I’ statements — ‘I know this,’ ‘I did this,’ ‘I can do X, Y or Z’ — because that’s too much about what you’re going to get out of this opportunity,” Mr. O’Neill said.
The company isn’t posting a job for charity, or to improve your life; they’re trying to fill a position they consider essential. Convince them that you’re the one who would most help them, not that you’d benefit most from it.
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