Second only to the resume in importance, the cover letter can be a valuable part of a job applicant’s standard documentation. It is a fundamental part of the applicant’s image in an employer’s eyes and, while the typical cover letter can leave a neutral impression, it can be a powerful tool with the right approach.
Most cover letters are bland and boring. This is not necessarily a detriment if the letter is accompanied by a strong resume that speaks squarely to the needs of the prospective employer. Even then, a formulaic letter can be a problem if the paperwork ends up in the hands of a hiring manager who scans the cover letter before getting to the resume, a practice that is surprisingly common.
Even if the hiring manager takes the more traditional “resume first” approach, the cover letter is especially important for some applicants. If your situation is in any way unusual, whether because you are overqualified, under-qualified, changing career course or returning to the workforce after a protracted absence, you may need to structure your resume so that it puts the best face on those factors.
For all those reasons, a cover letter should be more than boilerplate. It should be a lively, compelling piece of writing that breaks through the monotony of the hundreds of letters the hiring manager has seen. The typical letter starts with a mention of the job for which you have applied and adds a highlight or two from your resume. In closing, it offers to provide more information and expresses the hope that an interview is in your immediate future.
Instead of using that template, make your letter tell a story.
Start with something that will catch the reader’s interest. Make your opening both personal and job-specific. If the job description talks about finding new customers and you have done it in the past, let them know: “Are you looking for someone who can create new accounts and add to your customer base year after year?”
You have their attention. Move on to a brief description of what you have done to answer the question you posed. Keep it specific, personal and concrete. If you did something quantifiable, let the hiring manager know. If you have a particularly flattering reference, extract a quote that shows you off.
Follow those first two paragraphs with three or four bullet points. Bullet points are easy to read and they draw the eye. Again, keep things detailed and concrete and avoid the general and abstract. Don’t let the world know that you are a highly competent multi-tasker. Instead, be the person who increased customer retention 40 percent while overseeing the installation of a revamped data storage system to comply with new regulations.
Many people start their job search unable to answer the question: How do I write a cover letter? Writing a compelling cover letter takes work. It takes a good ear for the right tone, since it must connect with the reader while remaining professional. If the letter is not coming together in quite the right way or if you find yourself stuck, a professional writer, someone who specializes in resumes and cover letters, can take your raw material and shape it into a finished product that commands the right kind of attention.