5 Tips for Writing a Terrific Cover Letter

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A resume should say, "I did this stuff." A cover letter should say, "I can do everything you need, and here's why."

In the age of LinkedIn, where some people apply to jobs through smartphone apps and email, do cover letters still matter? A new survey of hiring managers gives a pretty clear answer: Heck, yeah.

Staffing agency OfficeTeam released a study last week that found 91 percent of executives consider cover letters valuable in evaluating candidates. And 79 percent said even electronic applications they’ve received usually included cover letters.

Both numbers are slightly higher than when OfficeTeam conducted a similar study with 150 managers just before the recession took hold in 2008. If anything, that suggests cover letters have grown more important over the past few years, not less.

That makes sense. Hiring managers often receive a thick pile of applications these days, and they can’t realistically assess everybody’s qualifications and then mentally match names and faces as they go through rounds of interviewing. That means cover letters are important in two ways.

First, they make strong candidates stand out from the pack. Second, they give candidates with average resumes a chance to offer context and examples that highlight answers to what Forbes calls the only three true job interview questions – Can you do the job? Will you love the job? Can we tolerate working with you?

With that in mind, here are the 5 R’s to punching up your next cover letter…

  1. RTFM. The polite version of this acronym is “read the flaming manual.” If you don’t follow guidelines listed in the job posting, such as using certain file formats or including the position title and number in the subject line, you may be knocked out of consideration automatically or through a hiring manager’s annoyance. After all, if you can’t handle basic instructions for something you obviously want – a job – why should they believe you’re capable of more complicated tasks?
  2. Research. If you want to impress Human Resources, be resourceful. Instead of submitting your cover letter to a generic sir/madam/whom it may concern, find out the hiring manager’s name. If it’s not online, call and ask. You’ll want to know that and a whole lot more about the company if you get called for an interview.
  3. Relate. If someone the manager knows referred you for the position, drop that name. If your research clued you into issues the company is having or helps you identify an opportunity, explain what help you can offer. Even if you suggest something the company has already tried, it shows you’re thoughtful and trying to make a contribution.
  4. Reveal. Your resume sums up your work history, so your cover letter shouldn’t repeat it. Instead, use this blank page to include anecdotes, skills, and experience that your resume doesn’t explain. Write in plain English without using robot-speak like, “I have a proven track record of success.” (As opposed to a track record of failure? Or a made-up track record?) Show personality alongside professionalism, and even if you lack the knack for writing, your cover letter will beat a majority of the competition.
  5. Reread. Always proofread every cover letter you send off. Read them out loud to yourself. Especially if you’re applying for similar positions at multiple companies, make sure you haven’t copied-and-pasted anything irrelevant to each one. Sometimes applicants accidentally mention their interest in working at a rival company, or worse, in a completely unrelated position. This raises red flags and makes you look stupid – as will any typos.

Job-seekers should also want to check out Avoid These Awful Resume Mistakes and 4 Places for Free Job Training.

Stacy Johnson

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