The job market is very competitive, with many determined applicants competing for the same job openings. As a small business owner and employer, I won’t even consider reviewing your resume, if your cover letter doesn’t grab my attention.
Your cover letter is the first thing potential employers see and if your cover letter is not interesting, concise, and error-free, it will be the last thing they see; they won’t even bother glancing at your resume. You have just a few seconds to make a good first impression, so do not submit lengthy, rambling cover letters to prospective employers and headhunters.
What Goes in a Cover Letter
Your cover letter needs to stand out from other letters, explaining how your skills and experience will make you an asset to the prospective employer. Make your cover letter specific to the job posting; it cannot read like a form letter.
Your cover letter should be three to four paragraphs:
- The first paragraph states the specific position that you are applying for and mentions where you heard about the position.
- The next two paragraphs summarize your unique qualifications for the position, and how your accomplishments and achievements will benefit the company.
- In the last paragraph, explain how you plan to follow-up with the potential employer, and the best way they can contact you.
- Close the cover letter by thanking the prospective employer for their time and consideration.
The following tips can help you write an effective and interesting letter that encourages the person reading it to move on to reviewing your resume.
Cover Letter Tips
1. Tailor Your Cover Letter for the Position
Avoid using a sample form letter and only changing the company’s contact information on your cover letter. If you do this, you will be one of many people using almost the exact same form letter, and your generic cover letter won’t stand out from the other letters.
Instead, determine the job responsibilities and explain in the cover letter how your experience, achievements, and education are relevant to the position. Also, if possible, address the letter to the person who reviews the resumes, not “To Whom It May Concern.”
Don’t use humor unless appropriate for the position. If the job description asks you to highlight specific information about your qualifications in the cover letter, make sure this information is easy to find.
2. Tell Your Story
A cover letter lets you really show your personality and put your experience in context. Your cover letter should read almost like a short story about why you are a perfect fit for the position and company. Make your letter enticing by using words and phrases that evoke imagery and emotions. By adding some personality, your cover letter won’t come across as a form letter.
Don’t overstate your abilities or embellish your work history; write honestly about your relevant experiences and your ability to do the job.
3. Show How Your Experience Is Relevant
In this tough economy, many individuals have branched out, applying for jobs outside of their normal area of expertise or industry. Show the interviewer how your past experience can help you perform at the company.
For example, an employee can learn the jargon and ins and outs of an industry, but the employer might not have time to teach a new salesperson how to sell. If you currently work as a lumber sales representative and you apply for a sales position in electronics, your cover letter should demonstrate to the potential employer why you have deep experience selling, instead of highlighting your experience selling lumber.
You can learn more about a potential employer and the industry by taking the time to research companies.
4. Research the Company and Their Website
When you research the company, you can gain insight into the their mission, products, services, and strategic goals. This information helps you answer the inevitable question, “Why do you want to work for us?” Explain in detail how you, your experience, and education can add value to the company, and how and why you will be a good fit.
5. Call Attention to Your Resume
Your cover letter must encourage the person reading the letter to read your resume. So subtly tell them to read it (e.g. “The classes I have completed are outlined in my resume”). Give one or two cues in the cover letter that send the reader to your resume. You’ll also want to learn how to write a great resume.
6. Explain any Short Stays with Previous Employers or Holes in Employment History
Can you provide a really good explanation as to why you haven’t held a job longer than six months to a year? If the company invites you to interview, the recruiter or hiring manager will ask you this question.
As a small business owner, I usually pass over a resume when I see the applicant has gone from job to job in a short period of time, unless the cover letter provides a well-written explanation. We invest a lot of time and money into training, so we want to hire applicants willing to put time into their jobs.
7. Mention the Mutual Contact’s Name Who Alerted You to the Position
If a credible, mutual source told you about the position, mention the source’s name in your cover letter. For example, “Matt Jones, the VP of Marketing, suggested that I write to you concerning the marketing position at your firm.” This adds some legitimacy to you as a candidate, especially if your contact works at the company.
8. Use Actual Phrases from the Job Posting
The job posting gives you insight into what the company wants from an employee. Use actual phrases or keywords from the job description to help you tailor the letter. If the job posting asks for salary or benefit requirements, include them before your final paragraph. If the posting does not ask for that information, then do not include it in your letter.
9. Do Not Beg
Even if your situation is desperate, you need to come across as confident in your abilities and skills, and explain how you will be an asset and a valuable employee for the company. If the company grants you an interview, it will be because you have something that the company needs, not because they have sympathy for your situation. Do not dwell on negative aspects of your career, layoffs, or downsizing. Focus on your skills and how they relate to the company’s needs.
10. Proofread Your Letter for Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation Errors
Use spell check, but remember that it does not catch the misuse of words (e.g. to vs. too vs. two, whether vs. weather, and write vs. right). Have a family member or friends proofread your cover letter for errors and provide you with feedback on the overall flow. Before you send the letter, take a break or sleep on it. That way, when you return, you can review your cover letter with a fresh perspective.
11. Maintain Professionalism
Use professional language at all times; don’t make the mistake of using slang or informal language in your cover letter. Even if you know the recruiter or hiring manager, the cover letter and resume may still need to be forwarded to and approved by multiple members of the company.
If you have an unprofessional email address, like IHopetheRedsWinthePennant@ baseball.com, don’t use this email address to send your cover letter. Instead, use a new email address that includes your first and last name.
12. Use a Basic Font
A basic 10-12 point font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, is more professional than fancier fonts. If you send a paper cover letter, use the same font, bullet style, and paper for both your cover letter and resume.
13. Utilize Social Media Websites
If appropriate to the position and the industry, include links to social media websites in your cover letter. If you send your resume and cover letter to a headhunter, include a link to your LinkedIn account in the note to the headhunter, so you can stay connected.
For more cover letter advice, check out 21 Mistakes to Avoid on Your Cover Letter and Resume.
Competition for jobs can be fierce. You must make a good first impression with a carefully written cover letter that calls attention to your specific qualifications and encourages the reader to review your resume. If you choose to write a vague form letter, prospective employers may pass over your resume and the opportunity will be lost. Take the time to craft a cover letter that really sells, to ensure you get the job you want.
Have you written a successful cover letter that led to an interview? Please share your experiences below.