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If you’ve ever written a cover letter, you’re likely familiar with the pressure of trying to present yourself as the most professional, knowledgeable, qualified candidate in what will surely be a sea of competition.
Cover letters challenge our skill in not only composition, but in self-reflection, and writing a good one can seem like a maddening task. But by following a few fundamental rules and focusing on just a handful of key elements, you can make your letter (and by association, yourself) shine.
1. Remember, brevity wins
Often, in our eagerness to showcase our experience, skills and enthusiasm, we become long-winded. Avoid the temptation to expound upon every last detail that demonstrates how you’re the perfect fit for a particular job.
Instead, be brief. Seriously, two or three paragraphs are all that’s needed. Recruiters and hiring managers are ruthless skimmers, and verbose cover letters only communicate that you have no idea how their world works.
The main goals of a well-crafted letter are simple:
- Express interest in the company.
- Provide a potential employer with a quick overview of why you’re a plausible candidate.
- Demonstrate that you possess basic professional writing skills.
2. Display nuggets of knowledge
Understand your audience and write for the particular company you’re applying to. Again, with brevity in mind, let your reader know that you’ve done your research.
For example, you know the firm has recently made an acquisition, is preparing for an IPO, or just expanded to support a new product line.
Bits of relevant information help make your letter stand out from the rest.
3. Keywords are key
It seems like the world is driven by keywords. Without littering your cover letter with jargon, include keywords in the natural flow of your writing.
Again, since most hiring managers and professional recruiters skim applicant material quickly, keywords can help you get noticed. And since many firms now filter resumes by keyword, getting in the habit of integrating them effectively can only benefit your job search.
4. Connect the dots
Cover letters exist simply as a means of introduction — a way for applicants to connect their experience and skills to the requirements of a position and thereby spark just enough interest to land an interview.
It’s important to make these connections explicit for the reader, especially if your qualifications may not be immediately clear. Briefly and concisely explain how what you’ve done in the past makes you uniquely qualified and immediately valuable.
5. Show yourself
Within the bounds of professionalism, it’s perfectly fine to convey a bit of personality in your cover letter. Without being too informal, write the way you speak, add a bit of humor, or include a relevant quote.
Readers often depend on the tone of a cover letter to determine if an applicant will click culturally. Plus, being able to write with a bit of personal flair shows a degree of skill and confidence.
6. Talk about the twists
Sometimes landing a new job means there are logistical challenges to overcome. Acknowledge your willingness to relocate or deal with a long commute. Or, if you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, explain what you’ve been up to professionally and how you’ve kept your skills sharp and qualifications top-notch.
Addressing these issues head-on prevents negative assumptions and may help keep your resume in play.
7. Proofread obsessively
I believe it was Dr. Seuss who said, “Proofread standing on your head. Proofread sitting down. Proofread in the country. Proofread all over town.” It’s so true. Proofing and editing what you’ve written is absolutely essential.
Don’t underestimate the critical eyes that will be reading what you’ve written. Check for misplaced commas, incorrect titles, missing words, the wrong date — anything that could flag your cover letter as less than perfect. If you don’t trust your own proofing skills, ask a friend to lend a second set of eyes.
In the end, cover letters and resumes serve as our professional calling cards. They synthesize everything we’ve done professionally and, when done well, communicate the highlights in mere seconds.
Without putting too fine a point on it, in a tight job market cover letters can represent the most valuable piece of writing we’ll ever compose. It gets our foot in the door, gets eyeballs on our resume, gets us an in-person interview, and (with a little luck) results in a job offer.
With that in mind, maybe it’s time to revamp our approach and spit shine these documents that are so important to our futures. Oh … and don’t forget to proofread like crazy.