How to Write Cover Letters That Don't Get Ignored
Cover letters are factual and resumes are statistical. Even so, cover letters can also include an emotional element to showcase your individuality. Effective cover letters are a succinct and powerful document focused on the hiring manager’s needs. The purpose of the cover letter is to grab the attention of the hiring manager from the very first words and leave a memorable imprint by the end.
While it’s true that cover letters are becoming less important as professional digital profiles enter the arena, there are those who ask for them and/or do enjoy reading them. For those who want to see a cover letter (could be a recruiter, HR or hiring manager who requests one), it is incredibly important to have an optimal one rather than writing one up very quickly.
Simply using a cover letter will put you ahead of your competition because most people don’t even think of having one in their arsenal of branding documents.
Representing yourself in the cover letter
Cover letters should be used in conjunction with the resume. As a former recruiter and HR gatekeeper, I did consistently see a drop off between resume quality and cover letter quality – and it is significant.
It’s good to keep in mind that some companies that do hiring don’t look at cover letters until they decide who they’ll interview. Once they have their top candidates picked out, they’ll get together as a team and do more research on backgrounds, skills, personality, writing abilities, and any other priorities for those candidates that will move on to the interview phase.
I have personally known a hiring manager whose original #1 candidate went down on the list because the cover letter was incoherent – especially when compared to his resume. It was clear he had help with the resume but did the cover letter and his LinkedIn profile on his own. The actual word used was “disheartening” since he was such a top pick before they completed additional digital research and read the cover letter. Writing skills are needed for a powerful cover letter and it’s quite obvious when little thought is put into writing one.
With so much information to deliver, where do you get started?
Begin your cover letter creation with a solid foundation and format, then work in the information that is relevant to the opening you are pursuing. Before you begin writing, know the answer to these three questions:
- How long? No more than one page – keep it succinct and avoid flowery language.
- Content? Focus on being the solution to the manager’s pain points and provide relevant, tangible accomplishments.
- Goal? Position yourself as the solution!
Writing a cover letter is similar to maintaining the rules of speechwriting. What are the three things that you have that are unique, provable and of interest to company?
The biggest mistake people make when they are writing cover letter is that they forget the document is for an audience other than themselves. Too often, candidates focus on writing the cover letter for themselves without considering who will be reading it.
The Focus – What is the hiring manager looking for?
The first rule of cover letter writing: Write a compelling document to inspire hiring managers to reach out to you. Make your case!
One clever way to decide what content to use is to think of yourself as your own attorney. The jury is the person reading it and you are pleading the case. How will you solve their pain points? The cover letter is the closing argument and includes:
Opening statement – A beginning paragraph that offers information on what the reader can expect to see in regards to achievements, skills, passion, and interest.
Intro: This is where you include your overall achievement statement relevant to the company. Write the letter directly to the hiring manager (NOT: To Whom it May Concern). Go into the company website – especially “About Us” – and try and find some language that you can use to show your connection to the company’s “Vision, Mission, Passion, Purpose” in the second and/or third sentences. Finish the opening with the sentence “In evaluating me as a candidate, I hope you will consider these strengths:”
Hot spot – Case in chief, presentation of evidence, cross examination, stats and figures, and transferable skills.
Body: Tell the story but do not repeat verbatim what is in the resume. Craft the content to the extent you want and you can. You can also include your best “transferable skills” statement here that articulates proof of those skills. Demonstrate understanding of the challenges, show impact and ability to be a solution to those challenges by using concrete accomplishment examples. Express a connection with the role, the company, or the organizational mission by defining relevant career accomplishments, qualifications and transferable skills.
Closing argument – What you’ll deliver after they hire you; reiterating how you’ll be a contributor.
Close: Close with something that strikes to character or intangibles. This is especially effective if those speak directly to the company vision, mission, etc. This gives you a chance to pull a quote out of the website – maybe from the President or Executive Director – or use their mission/vision as something that excites and motivates you. It is super powerful! If not that, a strong, clear and well written testimony to your strengths works well also. Include the recap, call to action and express appreciation that generates an interview.
Did you hit your cover letter goals?
Does the letter sell what you have to offer? The reason people will buy any service (storytelling, interviewing) is because they see the need for it. You are selling yourself. Paint pictures that make you irresistible to the reader. This includes:
- Header & Design: Use the same header, font and style as used in the resume
- Make connections between job requirements and your experience.
- Show you can think.
- Create a picture/story of your experience and the value you offer.
- Demonstrate expertise by using key words specific to the job, industry and company.
Tailoring your cover letter sections
This all may seem like a lot of busy work but you have to keep in mind that you are likely competing with dozens, if not 100-200+, competitors. The hiring manager will take a flash moment to look at this and some little bit of extra effort you put in can be the thing that turns you into a candidate in their mind.
Customizable areas include:
- Contact information: Format your cover letter just as you would a business letter. Insert the date, name and title of addressee, reference number and company name and address – if you can find them.
- Salutation: Try to use the hiring manager’s name if you have it; alternatively, you can use “Dear Hiring Manager”. For smaller companies, you can do a LinkedIn search to see if you can find the name of an HR manager or HR recruiter to direct it to. \
- First paragraph: When done well, this paragraph will entice the reader to continue to the next section of the letter. Lead with an impressive accomplishment or something newsworthy – you are trying to engage the reader to read on!
- Body of the cover letter: This is the meaty portion of the letter but it needs to provide information about your experience as it relates to the demands of the position. Tell a creative story, including quantifiable results and look at the job description to identify requirements of the position that align well with your experience. You will mirror the key words from the job description throughout the cover letter and especially within this section.
- Call to action: Your closing – summarize any additional points about your experience that are relevant to the position and invite the person to contact you. This is also the area where you can express your passion for what you do and convey your enthusiasm for the company.
- Signature: Include your name where a signature would traditionally be on a letter.
Easy mistakes to avoid
- Research! Performing strategic research in every aspect of your job search is key to selling and aligning yourself to their brand. Review the company, position, competitive companies, new trends, industry news, thought leaders, best-selling books in the industry and professional development needs for your target role. Research will also help you to pick out key words from the job advertisement and from the company website.
- Contact info: Don’t forget to add your name and contact information to the top of the page in the same letterhead format that is used on your resume. Include the position title, contact name and reference number when available. This ensures if your resume and cover letter get separated, the reader will know who it is and how to get in touch with you.
- Networking is still best: Most definitely highlight a personal connection at the company if you have one. Mention this relationship in the opening paragraph because it grabs the hiring manager’s attention. They want to see why someone they know and trust recommended you for the opening.
- Customization: Decide how you are going to sell yourself—what are they really looking for? Be sure you are addressing the specific requirements and keywords from the job description.
- Ensure it’s different from your resume: An easy mistake is to repeat information (sometimes verbatim!) from your resume. The reader does not want to see what’s on the resume so approach writing the cover letter content from the view of the potential employer searching for a candidate with a certain set of skills and experience.
- Keep an eye out for redundancy: Creating sentences that don’t start with the word “I” will place the emphasis on the work rather than on you.