There are three key parts of the cover letter: the opening, the body and the closing, and just like all our body parts need to work in tandem, you have to make sure that all three parts of your cover letter are equally strong.
The body of the letter is where many job applicants get bogged down in too much detail. Remember that you are attaching your resume or LinkedIn profile along with the letter, so make sure that the letter doesn’t just mirror what your resume says. You want to personalize it by showing some flair, and also emphasize how perfect you would be for the position.
But in doing so, remember that you want to avoid including references to everything you’ve ever done – especially if some of your work experience is off target. Select the parts of your background that most closely fit with the job requirements as outlined in the ad and focus on those. It’s better to touch on a couple of recent professional accomplishments in detail than gloss over a great number of items. The interviewer and company can still find out more on the resume – this is just to get their attention so they read on further.
While you might have a “generic” cover letter to start with, you’ll want to tailor each letter to the specific company and position you are applying to.
That means completing some background research on the company itself, by visiting their website, as well as LinkedIn and Twitter. Then, make sure that you have adapted your letter to reflect the job description requirements. A smart way to accomplish this is to enumerate the qualities, skills or talents described in the ad and mention how you fit each part.
You can even bullet them, writing something like:
I easily fit the requirements of the position as advertised:
- Three years of experience: as you’ll see in my attached resume I have worked at Beacon for four years.
- Fluent in Microsoft Office and WordPress: I know how to use all the main Microsoft programs and am also adept at PowerPoint. In addition, I regularly updated my company’s blog and am knowledgeable about WordPress.
- Attention to detail: I was frequently called upon as the “proofreader in residence” for all outgoing business proposals, thanks to my grasp of grammar and ability to find mistakes that others readily miss.
- Organized: In my previous position, I helped organize my boss’ and managing directors’ calendars, in addition to the regular duties I juggled.
Mentioning how you conform to each criterion makes it easy for the reader to see that you are a good fit.
If there is a particular skill where you are not a good fit, or just don’t yet have the experience, don’t call attention to it. The goal of the cover letter is to get your foot in the door so you can talk more about the areas where you do excel once you have that chance. You don’t want to be disqualified before you even get there!
Make sure that your personality shines through, by keeping it a little less formal. It’s a fine line between too uptight and too informal, so try to strike that balance. You want it to be conversational, and yet letter perfect.
Edit once, twice, three times. A smart strategy is to write the letter and then put it away for a few hours, preferably overnight, so you can look at it with fresh eyes. You also might want to pass it by someone you know to read because often when you have been looking at the same copy for so long, you stop noticing the little details.
Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes – do you clearly meet the qualifications? And do you stand out?
Finally, make sure that the letter is about them as much as you. That’s where your background research will come in. Are they known for a vibrant corporate culture or a sustainable ethic? You can mention how your personal core values match up, or how in your free time you pursue environmental related activities – anything that shows a connection to them and makes you stand out. If you know someone who works there, feel free to add in that fact as well, since a personal connection can also elevate you to the top of the pile. Just make sure you have alerted your acquaintance, so they are prepared in case the hiring manager touches base with them. You might even send them a copy of your cover letter so they are better prepared to share a key message with the interviewer, if they check in.
So many job applicants stress over their resume without giving proper thought to their cover letter. In many ways, the cover letter can be the more important of the two documents, because it’s the first time a future employer has the chance to read the personality behind the resume – which can be very cookie cutter. A well-written cover letter allows your genuine voice to shine through and can ensure that you are considered for an interview – the next step in the job hunting process.