I'm continually surprised by the number of people who either don't submit a cover letter with their résumé at all or who submit a generic form letter. I generally assume these applicants are just résumé-bombing, applying to such a wide range of jobs that they can't possibly tailor their applications to each job. I don't want these applicants; not only are they ignoring instructions in their very first contact with me, but I want applicants who are interested in this job, not a job.
A cover letter is where you make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what's in your résumé. The first thing you want to do is tailor it to the specific job you're applying for and, if possible, the specific company. Yes, it takes a lot longer than sending out the same form letter over and over, but a well-written cover letter that's obviously individualized to a specific opening is going to open doors when your résumé alone might not have. These account for such a tiny fraction of applications that you'll stand out and immediately go to the top of my pile. And I'll give you an extra look, even if your résumé isn't stellar.
So what does it mean to individualize the cover letter? Here are some ways to do it:
Stay away from hyperbole. I hate cover-letter statements like, "You won't find a candidate better qualified than me." It's usually not true when people say that, but, more important, it reeks of ego and naiveté. I don't want to feel like you're trying to sell me on you; from my side, the hiring process is about an honest assessment of whether you're a good match. Hyperbole just gets in the way.
Sometimes people argue that they have no time for this kind of personalization when they're applying for 30 different jobs. But narrow it down and focus on fewer jobs, take the time to write a truly compelling cover letter tailored to each specific job and company, and it's likely you'll find that five truly personalized, well-tailored applications will yield you better results than 30 generic applications.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size d nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.