How to Get a Great Job: Crafting Effective Cover Letters

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As with resumes, just about every job-search expert seems to have a different opinion on the worth of cover letters. But we’re here to tell you: cover letters matter. A good one can enhance your resume. A great one can move it to the top of the stack. A lousy one … well, you get the picture.

 

Cover All Bases

A cover letter serves multiple purposes. Traditionally, it has served as a formal introduction, but a savvy job seeker can use it to do so much more. For example:

·  You can show off your knowledge of the company or industry that you learned via thorough research.

 

“We don’t see many cover letters any more, but they are very important. The letter is your opportunity to really sell yourself.”

— Jill Silman, SPHR, vice-president at Meador Staffing Services and a spokesperson for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM)

·  You can highlight a specific skill or experience you have that’s a great match for this opening.

·  You can explain—briefly and with a positive spin—any possible red flags in your resume, such as a long gap in employment or multiple short-term jobs.

·  You can demonstrate your sharp communication skills and business writing abilities with a well-crafted letter.

·  You can let your personality peep through a little. Show some enthusiasm and verve in describing how much you want the position!

 

Customize Each Cover

Always write a fresh cover letter to match the job you’re applying for. It’s even more important to customize the cover letter than the resume. That’s because you use the letter to pinpoint why you are perfect for this particular job. Study the job description or posted ad carefully, and make sure you address every point mentioned.

And be sure to save all your cover letter versions just as you do your resumes; you’ll want to pull phrases and sentences from previous letters to build current ones. It’s not as important to keep track of cover letters after you send them, but your letter may come in handy as a reminder of the key skills or accomplishments you spelled out for a particular job.

Finally, remember to proofread every single version of your cover letter before you send it. A single typo or misspelled word spells R-E-J-E-C-T-I-O-N.

 

What Recruiters Say

Not all recruiters are sold on cover letters. Dionna Keels, a member of the SHRM [Society for Human Resource Management] staffing management expertise panel, calls them “a matter of personal preference” on the part of recruiters or HR professionals. “I don’t put a lot of weight on them; however, if I’m trying to narrow down a small group of good candidates, the letter might become a deciding factor,” she says

Keels warns: “However, cover letters are another place where people have misspellings and bad sentence structure.”

As with drafting or refining your resume, you should look to your public library for help with writing cover letters. Check their website or ask a reference librarian what resources the library offers. Possibilities include classes or workshops, booking an ask-a-librarian appointment, or one-on-one consultations with career experts.

 

Writing the Perfect Letter, Top to Bottom

Once you get the hang of it, writing a cover letter is easy. You can follow this simple outline—just take it from the top and work your way down the steps.

 

Start at the Top

Always use a formal business letter style and format. (See example.)

Your information: As with any business letter, your name and contact information should appear at the top. If you’re formatting a document, it’s a good idea to use the same layout and font you use on your resume. Otherwise, simply type it in below the date. Include the contact information the employer will need, including phone number and e-mail address.

Date: Unless your cover letter appears in the body of an e-mail message, date it. If you’re writing your draft over the weekend, for example, use the date you plan to drop the letter in the mail so the letter looks as recent as possible.

Salutation: Ideally, you will use the recipient’s name, as in “Dear Mr. Brown:” Because few job postings include a person’s name, try browsing the company website, LinkedIn, and other Internet sources to see if you can find the name of the current department head, hiring manager, or HR professional. If you can’t find a name that you’re certain will be the end reader, use something like “Dear Human Resources Professional:” or “Dear IT Manager:”

Anything but the frigid “Dear Sir or Madam:” or “To Whom It May Concern:” !

 

Open with Your Strong Suit

Start the body of your letter by identifying the position you’re applying for. Don’t assume the reader will know this; their organization may have multiple positions open. Other things to include in your first paragraph:

·  If you’ve been referred by, or know someone, that the reader knows, mention their name right off the bat: “Your director of operations, Samantha Samuels, suggested I contact you. …”

·  If you don’t have an “in” or introduction, find a strong start. For example, showcase your knowledge of the hiring company or department, or of the industry. This is where the research that you’ll learn to do in chapter 7 will really pay off!

 

The Middle Matters

Now that your first paragraph has caught the reader’s attention, hit ‘em with your sales pitch. The second paragraph should highlight your qualification, skill or experience that makes you the best candidate for this particular job. Don’t simply restate your resume, but pull out one or two points and expand on them, with a focus on how they can be applied to the open position and that employer.

If you want to touch on multiple points, one way to stay concise is to use bullet points. This makes your letter shorter and easier to read.

 

Make Your Closing Arguments

Use your final paragraph for what direct marketers call a “call to action.” Encourage the reader to contact you and let her know you’re interested in the job. But if you have—or can get—the telephone number of the hiring manger or HR professional you are addressing, say that you will call her next week, and do it! If you can keep control of the contact rather than passively waiting by the phone, take advantage—just don’t become a pest.

Include a “thank you” to the reader — for her consideration, for her interest, or for her prompt attention.

When signing off of a cover letter, use “sincerely” or “yours truly” above your signature. These are the most businesslike options.

Add a P.S. below your signature. Direct marketers know that a postscript stands out, and that letter-readers will skip down to read that first. So use that “last word” for something important.

 

Essential Writing Tips

While you’re drafting each cover letter, keep these tips in mind:

·  Keep it short. Each letter should be just one page with plenty of white space.

·  Whether you’re e-mailing or mailing the letter, it’s a good idea to refer to your attached or enclosed resume—this directs the reader to look at that important document.

·  Try to avoid starting every line or every paragraph with the word “I”. You don’t have to twist your words too much to change “I can do this” and “I can do that” to “ABC Corporation’s data entry department provides the perfect opportunity for me to …”

·  Keep using those keywords! Recruiter Jill Silman says her firm scans each cover letter with its resume—and is included in a keyword search. “The cover letter and resume are really treated as one document,” she says.

 

Formatting Your Cover Letter

Your cover letter should match your resume. Use the same typeface and type size in both. If you have a graphical or fancy heading for your contact information at the top of your resume, repeat it in your cover letter. Use the same margin widths.

And as with all business letters, your cover letter should be single-spaced.

 

EXAMPLE OF FORMATTED COVER LETTER

October 12, 2011

Eva M. Thornton
1234 S. Bly Ave., Apt. 23
Baton Rouge, LA 49302
evamthornton@122.com
123/345/5678

Dear Human Resources Professional:

Your job posting on Batonrougejobs.com for a sales support associate sounds like a good fit for my skills and experience—especially given your company’s recent acquisition of ABC Technology. As you can see by my enclosed resume,

·  I have experience supporting a sales team at TRG Industries, where we sold customized computer components for the restaurant industry. There I quickly learned the ins and outs of a new market, technical components and sales service.

·  I am proficient in Microsoft Office software as well as Access, and have completed extensive coursework in Word and Access.

·  My previous jobs working in retail sales gave me invaluable experience in customer relations, handling complaints and working as a member of a team.

Please feel free to contact me by phone or e-mail. I’d be happy to come in to meet with you in person. 

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Eva M. Thornton

P.S. Your posting requested that I state my salary requirements. At my last job I was earning $36,000 per year and shared my team’s annual bonus. I am looking for a position that would offer a salary comparable to that.

 

 

Salary Requirements: Give Them What They Want

If the job posting calls for applicants to give their salary history or salary requirements, you’d better include it! Countless hirers and recruiters said that if they ask for this and don’t see it, that resume doesn’t make the cut.

Your cover letter is the ideal place for this. (Consider using your valuable P.S. slot to convey the information.) To give yourself the most flexibility, give the most general information.

Your salary history might consist of:

“I started my last position with an annual salary of $43,000, and when I left I was earning $46,500.”

Your salary requirements might state:

“I am looking for a position that offers a salary in the range of $43,000 to $50,000.”

You will, of course, do your salary research before you state any requirements so that you’re sure your expectations are realistic!

 

E-mailing Your Cover Letter

When answering a job posting by e-mail, the body of your e-mail message serves as your cover letter. It’s a good idea to draft the letter in a word processing document so that you can easily edit, proofread, spell check, and save it—and when you have a final version, then copy and paste that into your e-mail. Proofread one more time before sending to check line breaks and remove bullet points and other formatting that might not appear properly.

Other tips for using your e-mail as a cover letter:

·  E-mails often tend to be rushed, informal, and terse. Do not allow this with your “cover e-mail.” You should still use formal language.

·  If your e-mail program allows, create an automatic e-mail signature that includes your contact information. This way you don’t have to type it in every time.

·  If you don’t use an e-mail signature, be sure to include your phone number and e-mail address in the body of the letter. Your call to action close is the perfect place for this.

·  Obviously, you won’t sign your e-mail, but still use the business close “sincerely” or “yours truly,” followed by your full name.

 

How to Handle Hard Copies

It’s rare that you will end up mailing or giving a prospective employer a hard copy of your cover letter and resume. But if you do, be sure to print both documents out on the same good quality paper, and remember to sign the cover letter!

If you’re mailing your resume and cover letter, fold both documents together and use a #10 envelope.

 

The Last Word

When you come across a job opening that sounds like a great fit, it’s natural to want to hurry up and get your application or resume in fast. But slow down—take the time to do some research so that you write specific information or ideas related to that position into your letter. Make sure you understand current salary and benefits ranges for the position too, so you can base any salary information on that research.

 

Then sit down and write a carefully crafted, pinpoint-specific, killer cover letter. Proofread it, proofread it again, and then, before you hit that send button or lick that envelope flap, remember to proofread it.

 

Best in Show — Cover Letters

202 Great Cover Letters
by Michael Betrus, (2008).

Cover Letter Magic
by Wendy Enelow and Louise Kursmark, (2010).

Knock 'em Dead Cover Letters: Great Letter Techniques and Samples for Every Step of Your Search
by Martin Yate, (2008).

Online Resources

Wall Street Journal Careers site, “How to Write a Cover Letter.”

Dummies.com, “Cover Letters.”

Purdue Online Writing Lab, “Cover Letters.”

 

 

 

book cover: How to Get a Great Job: A Library How-To HandbookThis article is adapted from the book How to Get a Great Job: A Library How-To Handbook by Editors of the American Library Association published by ALA Editions.

 

 

Photo credit: NoncommercialShare Alike Job Application by jon.liu

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