1. Write purposefully. The goal of a cover letter is to create reader interest so that he continues on to your résumé. A cover letter should not be about your needs but rather how your past experience, professional skills and your passions will benefit the hiring organization. Also, a cover letter is not a restatement of your résumé – it is the hook that pulls the audience to the résumé. Keep these points in mind when writing your letter.
2. Customize. Hiring authorities are busy. The cover letter should quickly show how your background is a match to a specific opening. The best way to achieve this is to tailor your writing to the actual company and position. Generic statements such as "I would like to work at a leading employer to apply my skills and knowledge" are often dismissed by recruiters. The statements that really grab attention talk directly to the employer. "I am motivated to apply my three years of customer service experience to maintain Company X's position as the leader in customer satisfaction in the electronics industry." Select examples that show (not tell) how you have the requisite skills. This also demonstrates your understanding of the position and are an opportunity to share more about your personality.
3. Make a connection. Do you know anyone at that company? If you have a direct connection, establish that in the first paragraph. For example, "I am writing to express my interest in the accounting associate role that was described to me by John Smith, accountant at Desired Company and a previous colleague of mine. John thought that my QuickBooks experience with Current Company would be an ideal match for your needs." You can also reference if you have attended any events that the company has hosted or are aware of any new initiative that may be relevant to the open position. The key is to show you have a deeper knowledge than the average job seeker and have done your research.
4. Keep it brief. An effective letter will typically have three paragraphs and 12 to 15 sentences. The first paragraph establishes your interest or purpose in writing a cover letter – i.e., if you have a connection to the company, what role you are targeting, etc. The second paragraph should highlight how your background aligns with the requirements. Resist the urge to repeat parts of your résumé. This should be an appetizer of what they will find if they continue reading. The third paragraph should thank them for the consideration and establish next steps. Will you call them to follow up or submit an online application that may have been requested in the job posting? Outline what (if anything) you will do next and make sure you actually do it.
5. Print and review. It is critical to print out the letter to check for layout, alignment, typos, grammatical errors and more. Also, look for potential run-on sentences. Many times the ideas within long or compound sentences could be more clearly expressed with shorter sentences. Busy readers will appreciate the brevity and be more likely to understand your meaning with effective editing.
When it comes to job seeking, writing a good cover letter will help you to stand out from the pack. Once your customized letter is ready, apply to the position quickly. The hiring manager may become more jaded after seeing many unqualified or generic responses, so take advantage of applying while the search is new. Politely follow up to make sure the cover letter and résumé were received and to learn more about the screening process. Sometimes, employers can confirm if they will be moving quickly or if their process may take weeks. In most cases, it is appropriate to send a follow-up email five to seven days after submitting your materials as a reminder of your continued interest and your willingness to submit additional information if needed. It takes time to write a cover letter that gets results – but the effort is well worth it.
Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.