The process of finding new job opportunities has changed, and it’s easy to wonder if cover letters are still relevant. The simple answer is yes. Unless a potential employer has asked you not to include a cover letter, the serious candidate (that’s you) will always do so.
Some job seekers treat cover letters like a formality that doesn’t have much of an impact. This is a costly mistake. Hiring managers do read them, and they do matter. Here are five steps to make your cover letter work harder for you.
STEP 1: UNDERSTAND THE PURPOSE AND STRUCTURE OF A COVER LETTER.
The first step toward writing your best cover letter is to know why you’re writing it. The purpose of a cover letter is to capture the interest of hiring managers, inspire them to read your resume, and ultimately make them want to call you for an interview. In terms of structure, every cover letter you write should:
- Establish your interest in that particular job opening.
- Demonstrate your knowledge of that particular company.
- Draw clear connections between what you have and what the company needs.
Beyond that, there is no concrete formula. Unlike a resume, the cover letter should reveal a bit of your personality.
STEP 2: OPEN STRONG.
- Use a real person’s name. A generic salutation won’t score any points. Instead of “Dear sir or madam,” use the name of the hiring manager wherever possible (e.g., Dear Ms. Johnson). If the job posting doesn’t give a name, use Google or LinkedIn to find one. You can also use the job title of the department head. This shows initiative and drive.
- Grab your reader’s attention. The opening lines of your cover letter should be fresh and engaging. Why are you excited about this opportunity? Why are you passionate about your field? What makes you a great fit for the role? Find a creative (yet professional) way to stand out from the crowd.
- Don’t introduce yourself by name. It’s enough that your name appears at the end of the cover letter and at the top of your resume.
- Make use of your connections. If you have a legitimate connection to the company, or to someone who works there, describe it within the first two or three sentences.
STEP 3: STRIKE THE RIGHT TONE.
- Don’t be robotic or bland. Nothing makes hiring managers sleepier than sentences like, “I wish to express my sincere interest in the current job opening at your respected establishment.” Your objective is to capture the hiring manager’s interest, not to blend in with predictable words and sentences.
- Don’t be over the top. Enthusiasm is one of the keys to a good cover letter, but too much enthusiasm sounds shallow and redundant (e.g., “I am unbelievably thrilled to be applying for such an incredibly amazing opportunity.”).
- Use conversational words. Writing a cover letter is not like playing a game of Scrabble where bigger words earn more points. When in doubt, use a simpler and shorter word. This will almost always improve the quality and flow of your cover letter.
- Study the company. Read its website, advertisements, and press releases. When you have a feel for how the company itself communicates, you can find ways to strike a harmonious tone.
STEP 4: KEEP IT RELEVANT.
- Pay attention to the word count. Unless a job posting asks for cover letters of a specific length, aim for 250-400 words. That’s about half a page or four paragraphs. Your ability to say what needs to be said in this amount of space – and to do it effectively – will be appreciated by hiring managers. Your resume, and hopefully your interview, will give you a chance to say more.
- Focus on experiences and responsibilities instead of credentials. You have every reason to be proud of your academic achievements, but this factual information is on your resume. When reading your cover letter, hiring managers are more interested in the difference you’ve made, the drive you feel, and the value you can deliver.
- Stress your value to the company, not the other way around. Draw bold connections between your professional skill set and the demands of the open position. Send a clear message that you can and will deliver where it counts.
- Show genuine interest in the organization. If you study newsletters and press releases, you should be able to include one or two well-placed comments that let hiring managers know you’ve done your homework.
- Customize each cover letter . It bears repeating that each time you sit down to write a cover letter, you should place 100% of your focus on that particular opportunity. Hiring managers receive plenty of generic cover letters, and the difference is easy to spot.
- Play to your strengths. If there are gaps in your skills and experience, don’t draw attention to them. Your resume will provide the necessary facts, but your cover letter should send a positive message about your ability to exceed expectations.
- Leave out personal details. This includes travel experiences, small talk, and other irrelevant information.
STEP 5: WRITE A MEMORABLE CONCLUSION.
You’ve put a lot of effort into writing a great cover letter, so don’t end with a whimper. “I greatly look forward to hearing from you in due course,” is a forgettable closure. Instead, reiterate your passion for what the company is doing and where it’s going. Reinforce the idea that you share the same vision and that you have a unique ability to meet the company’s needs.
When you finish a cover letter, read it from beginning to end. Look for ways to improve the flow and enhance the message. Repeat this process. The energy you put in will be worth it. The average professional will write many cover letters over the course of their career, and it’s a skill that evolves over time. Build on what you’ve learned from previous efforts, but try to keep a fresh perspective. When you know how to write a great cover letter, your next job interview is never far off.