While a strong, concise, and error-free résumé can help move your application from a bottomless pit to the top of the stack, it’s a great cover letter that will get you plucked from that stack and in for that coveted interview. Yes, even in today’s digital age, a cover letter—which can also be written in the body of an email to the hiring manager rather than as a separate attachment—is absolutely essential. A thoughtful cover letter adds colour to your accomplishments, tells the prospective employer why you’re right for their specific job, and gives a better sense of you and your personality. It’s a tall order for one document, but wielded correctly, it can be massively powerful. Here’s what you need to know to master your cover letter and hopefully land the job.
Master the basics.
Unless you’re a graphic designer, this isn’t the place to get fancy with formatting. Stick to a standard business format with your letter: Your address as well as the hiring manager’s should be at the top, and you should sign the letter above your typed name at the bottom. (If writing your note in an email, these rules do not apply.) All letters should be single-spaced, flush left, with each paragraph followed by a blank line.
Keep it short.
Stick to two or three paragraphs and jump right into compelling information—don’t waste space with a bland or lengthy introduction. And be sure to cover each of these four bases: a salutation (addressed to an actual person, not Sir/Madam or Hiring Manager), an enthusiastic opening, a body highlighting relevant skills and achievements, and a snappy conclusion requesting an interview.
Don’t regurgitate your résumé.
This is rule number one of cover-letter writing. Don’t waste your time listing what the hiring manager already knows from your résumé. Call out only your most important accomplishments and skills (yes, these should be on your résumé as well) and highlight exactly how they can benefit the company. And, most important, this is the place to show your personality, enthusiasm about the industry, and interest in this particular job. Go beyond the basics and make it compelling.
Writing a cover letter can be intimidating, so you may be tempted to go online and use a template. Don’t do it. Hiring managers can sniff out generic letters a mile away. By failing to customize your letter, you are missing a great opportunity to connect personally and specifically with a potential employer.
Take the extra few minutes to treat this job posting like it’s the only one you’re eyeing (even if it’s not!). Do your research. Make specific references to the company’s evolution and how you plan to contribute to it. Talk about elements of your portfolio you could apply directly to their brand. And use industry jargon—without going overboard—so they know you’re “one of them.”
Get a second pair of eyes.
First, read it aloud—you’ll often catch errors in flow you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Second, double (and triple) check that all names are spelled correctly. Finally, recruit a friend with immaculate grammar to give your draft a once-over. If you really want to be safe, hire a job coach or proofreader to give it a read.
Treat it like an interview.
Nothing impresses a hiring manager more than a candidate who does his or her homework. Anticipate questions they might ask during the interview and address them preemptively in your cover letter. Why are you a perfect fit? What skills do you have to offer? What, in company history, resonated with you? This shows you possess strong foresight, which can only be an asset to you as a candidate.
Mine your network.
Did a former co-worker connect you with this company? Did the CFO recommend you? Note it in your cover letter—“So-and-so suggested that I contact you about . . . .” This isn’t the time to be shy about your accomplishments or your relevant connections.
Hush the negative self-talk.
Imposter’s syndrome is a huge mental block that can stand in the way of putting your best self forward in a cover letter. It can undoubtedly feel awkward to speak highly of yourself in a way that’s confident and assertive. Get out of that mind-set by looking at other résumés and picking out powerful words and phrases that resonate with yours; talking (out loud!) about your accomplishments as if you’re speaking with the recruiter—inspiration might strike; or chatting with a close friend who knows your work history for a bit of a pep talk—she surely won’t have any problem raving about you. Take note.
Expert advice from Karen Burns, the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use.