1. A great first sentence. Pandora MacLean-Hoover, licensed independent clinical social worker, says that having a fabulous first sentence is a must. According to her, the key to getting the attention of a hiring manager through that sentence is validation.
Starting your cover letter with something like, "Congratulations on your recent award," MacLean-Hoover says, "demonstrates familiarity with the employer, making it clear the candidate has done his or her homework."
MacLean-Hoover, who helps job applicants determine why they don't hear back from all the résumés they send out, stresses the importance of tailoring that first sentence to the person or the company.
2. Personalization. No one likes getting a "To Whom It May Concern" letter. If the company does not provide the name of person, you have a couple of options. You could leave off the salutation completely, forget the guessing games and spend that time focusing on how your qualifications should get you an interview for the position. You could call the company and find out to whom to address the letter or you could address it, "Dear Hiring Manager," which isn't the end of the world.
3. Matching qualifications. You probably have a list of your best skills that you pull out for a cover letter. The cover letter is where you should go deeper by paying attention to that job description. Pick out exact words you can repeat in your letter so that you are, essentially, speaking the hiring manager's language. Find in your own skill set those features that the company wants the most.
4. Blog links. Even if you're lacking in job experience but you've been blogging about your industry, don't be shy about including links to your posts. Laura Kammerman, the human resources and office manager at Geek Powered Studios, says she's always looking for personality in cover letters. Blogs give her more insight into who a job candidate is: "I find it very helpful when candidates include links to blogs that have a long history of posting because you can see who they are professionally over time – not who they are projecting to impress an interviewer – and you see what they think is appropriate to put in a public place like the internet," she says. "Also, applicants who provide a link to the blog in the cover letter, rather than letting me discover it while doing internet research on them, convey a type of openness about themselves and their work."
5. A "why." Don't just share your work experience in your cover letter. A cover letter will stand out if it explains why you are valued at your current job and with your clients. Tell why you're a good fit for a job. Study the job description to glean what the company is looking for, and figure out how to best position yourself for the role.
6. LinkedIn profile URL. Just like with those blog links, including a link to your LinkedIn page can save the recruiter or hiring manager the time of searching for it. Just make sure your profile is completely filled out and up to date.
7. Stark raving mad creativity. If you really want to have an effect, do something no one else is doing. Youtern.com posted an article on creative cover letters that highlights the creativity of Hanna Phan, who wanted a job with the presentation software company SlideRocket, so she used its presentation software to create an innovative cover letter. While it might not be a feasible solution for every job you want to apply for, certain companies may appreciate the extra thoughtfulness and creativity, and give you a leg up.
Lindsay Olson is a founding partner and public relations recruiter with Paradigm Staffing and Hoojobs.com, a niche job board for public relations, communications, and social media jobs. She blogs at LindsayOlson.com, where she discusses recruiting and job search issues.