It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018
You know that next job of yours? Yes, that’s right, the really amazing one with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks in the office vending machine? That one.
You know how you’re going to land it? By quickly showing your future employer that:
a) You’re going to perform incredibly well in this job.
b) You’re insanely likable.
c) You’re really going to fit in around there.
These are the three primary factors that influence the selection process. The person who wins that great job will be the one who shows the decision makers, quickly, that he or she is all three of those things. And you have an amazing opportunity to begin planting these seeds right from the introduction, à la your cover letter.
Most people squander the opportunity. Instead of using their cover letter real estate to their massive advantage, they toss over bland, cliche-filled, or completely-redundant-to-the-resume clunkers. Or worse, they showcase all the things that they want out of the deal, without pausing for a moment to recognize that the company cares a heck of a lot more about what it’s going to get from you.
As a recruiter, it pains me to read most cover letters, because the vast (and I mean vast) majority of them stink. Knowing this should inspire you even further to create a brilliant one. Because, let me tell you, on those rare occasions an amazing cover letter crosses my desk? Mamma mia. It makes my day, and it most certainly influences my interest in its author.
So, how do you pull off a killer cover letter, one that conveys passion and talent and that makes the recruiter or hiring manager’s day? Make sure you do all of these things.
1. Tell Them Why, Specifically, You’re Interested in the Company
Decision makers never want to feel like you’re wallpapering the universe with the same pathetic cover letter. They want to feel special. And so, you need to make it clear that you’re approaching this organization for very specific reasons. And ideally, not the same very specific reasons that everyone else is giving.
Try a high-personality lead in like this: “Having grown up with the Cincinnati Zoo (literally) in my backyard, I understand firsthand how you’ve earned your reputation as one of the most family-friendly venues in the State of Ohio. For 20 years, I’ve been impressed as your customer; now I want to impress visitors in the same way your team has so graciously done for me.”
2. Outline What You Can Walk Through the Doors and Deliver
This isn’t you making a general proclamation of, “Hey, I’m great. I swear!” You need to scrutinize the job description and use whatever other information you’ve gathered about the opening, determine the key requirements and priorities for this job, and make it instantly clear to the reviewer that you can deliver the goods on these key things.
Consider crafting a section within the letter that begins with, “Here’s what, specifically, I can deliver in this role.” And then expound upon your strengths in a few of the priority requirements for that role (they’re typically listed first on the job description or mentioned more than once).
3. Tell a Story, One That’s Not on Your Resume
As humans, we love stories far more than we love data sheets. (OK, I speak for most humans). So, what’s your story? What brings you to this company? Did you used to sing along to all of its commercials as a kid? Did the product make some incredible difference in your life? Do you sometimes pull into the parking lot and daydream about what it would feel like to work there? Tell your story. Just make sure you have a great segue. Random trivia can come across as weird.
Say you’re applying for a marketing job with a baked goods company known for its exquisite tarts and pies. You may want to weave a sentence or two into your cover letter about how you took the blue ribbon in the National Cherry Festival pie eating contest when you were 10, and that you’ve been a pie fanatic ever since. (Yes, this was me, but I actually came in second place. Sigh.)
4. Address the Letter to an Actual Person Within the Company
Not one employee at your future new company is named “To Whom it May Concern,” so knock that off. You’ve got to find a real person to whom you can direct this thing.
This seems so hard or overwhelming, but it’s often easier than you may think. Just mosey over to LinkedIn and do a People search using the company’s name as your search term. Scroll through the people working at that company until you find someone who appears to be the hiring manager. If you can’t find a logical manager, try locating an internal recruiter, the head of staffing or, in smaller companies, the head of HR. Address your masterpiece to that person. Your effort will be noted and appreciated.
And a last, critical factor when it comes to delivering a great cover letter: Be you. Honest, genuine writing always goes much, much further than sticking to every dumb rule you’ve ever read in stale, outdated career guides and college textbooks.
Rules can be bent. In fact, if you truly want that amazing job with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks? They should be.
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