13 October, 2020
By Mike Simpson
Ah, the cover letter. While it seems like writing a cover letter would be so incredibly simple, it’s often one of the most intimidating parts of the application process. Why? Well, there are quite a few reasons.
With a cover letter, you have to showcase your capabilities differently than you would in a resume. If you’re new to cover letters, that alone could be enough to set you on edge.
Plus, cover letters can feel a lot like bragging. It’s a one-sided conversation, where you tout your abilities to an audience that isn’t answering. That, too, can be a bit uncomfortable.
But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from creating one. With the right cover letter tips, you can create an effective cover letter that boosts your job search prospect. Ready to make the most of this little document? Then, come with us as we explore how to do just that.
What Is a Cover Letter? What Are They Used For?
Before we dig into any cover letter tips, let’s take a step back and answer a couple of basic questions.
First, what is a cover letter?
Well, a cover letter is a critical document that takes the form of a traditional letter. It lets you introduce yourself to the hiring manager in a way that isn’t possible with a resume alone. In many ways, it allows you to extend a more meaningful digital handshake.
Generally speaking, resumes are fact-based documents. You list your achievements, using a bullet point approach. It’s succinct, targeted, and straightforward.
Cover letters have more flow. You can use “I” statements and describe yourself. You can showcase your personality, both in the way you write and the points you choose to cover. While it needs to be relevant to the position you want to land, a cover letter is more conversational.
A second question that frequently crosses job seekers’ minds is, what are cover letters used for? After all, your resume highlights your skills, traits, and achievements. Do you really need anything more than that? Well, yes, you do.
Your resume has to be incredibly focused and concise, and the presentation of your abilities often feels a bit rigid. It’s hard to showcase your personality in a resume. Plus, you don’t have a lot of room to explain various details. Sometimes, that works against you.
With a cover letter, you give yourself that room. You can cultivate a narrative, sharing aspects of your story that have no place on a resume. Got a gap in your work history? You can discuss why in your cover letter. Switching careers? You can explain your choice and tap on how your skills are transferable in a cover letter.
Now, that doesn’t mean you want to get too personal – we’ll dig into that more in a bit – a cover letter does give you some freedom of expression. When used well, it can make a world of difference, helping you stand out from the pack and land an interview.
Characteristics of a Good Cover Letter
What to put in a cover letter? That’s likely a question running through your mind. Luckily, the answer isn’t challenging.
Now, we’ve covered the various structural aspects of an effective cover letter before, so we’ll just tap on them briefly here.
Just remember, if you’re using examples, don’t copy them verbatim even if they are a good match for your capabilities. There’s always a chance that a hiring manager is going to check your cover letter for plagiarism and, if they discover you pulled yours straight from another website, you can kiss that job goodbye.
At the opening of your cover letter – after you’ve covered your and the hiring manager’s contact information along with a greeting – you need to introduce yourself. Also, in the first paragraph, mention the job title and department of the position you’re going after. If you’re applying to a recruiter that fills openings at multiple businesses, list the company name, too. That way, there’s no doubt as to why you’re writing.
After that, when you are deciding what to put in a cover letter, drawing the hiring manager in needs to be your goal. How do you do that? By targeting the content.
You already know that tailoring your resume is important; the same is true of your cover letter. You don’t want to send out a generic form letter. That won’t pack a punch.
Instead, you want your cover letter to showcase why you’re the best fit for this specific job. When you’re writing a cover letter, it’s all about creating a standout value proposition. You need to highlight how your capabilities will help the company thrive. You can’t do that without tailoring the content.
Usually, you’ll extol your virtues and present a standout value proposition in two or three body paragraphs. Then, it’s time for an amazing closing.
Express your appreciation. Reaffirm your interest. Say, “thank you.” Let them know you’re looking forward to hearing back and how you intend to follow up. Then, sign off, listing your LinkedIn page or personal branding website after your signature.
Keep the overall length of your cover letter reasonable. Usually, you are aiming for about one page, with one opening paragraph, two or three body paragraphs, and a closing paragraph.
Common Cover Letter Mistakes
Alright, we are getting closer to the amazing cover letter tips that will help you stand out from the masses. But before we start on those, let’s take a minute to cover something else important: what not to do.
Cover letter mistakes can turn a great cover letter into a terrible one. That’s why avoiding missteps is essential. So, without further ado, here are three things you don’t want to do.
1. Not Writing a Cover Letter
In reality, the biggest cover letter mistake you can make is not writing one. Even if the application doesn’t make one mandatory, skipping it will usually hurt you.
After all, 26 percent of recruiters view cover letters as important when they are trying to make hiring decisions. Why? Think about it. Cover letters help them learn more about candidates. If they really want to find the cream of the crop, reviewing job seeker cover letters can help them do it.
Plus, 52 percent of hiring managers would give more attention to a resume with a cover letter. When you add a good cover letter to your resume, you’re going the extra mile. It takes effort to create one of the best cover letters around, and hiring managers will notice that you gave it your all.
In nearly all cases, creating an effective cover letter works in your favor. That’s why skipping it is generally a bad move.
There is one situation where you don’t want to submit a cover letter: when the instructions specifically say not to. If you send one in anyway, you’re not following the directions. Even if you literally wrote the most spectacular cover letter ever created, you failed to do what the instructions said, and that usually means a one-way trip to the discard pile.
2. Making It All About You
Alright, we admit this mistake is a bit counter intuitive. After all, aren’t you supposed to tell the hiring manager why you’re amazing? Well, yeah, you are.
The trick is how you approach it. It shouldn’t be “me, me, me.” Instead, it needs to explore what you can do for the company.
You’re creating a value proposition. You need to position yourself as a solution to specific company challenges. How do you do that? Start by scouring the job description.
As you look at the vacancy announcement, look for insights about how this role functions based on the bigger picture. What critical duties will the new hire handle? How does this employee push the company towards its goals and broader success?
Once you figure that out, showcase how you can do that for the company.
Now, this doesn’t mean you rehash what’s on your resume. No, no, no. Redundancy is never good. Instead, you want to cover points that don’t work in your application elsewhere, or add context about your capabilities that didn’t fit on your resume. That’s how you make your value proposition stronger.
3. Being Too Personal
Showcasing your personality is a good idea, but that doesn’t mean you need to give the hiring manager intimate details about your life. The focus needs to be on your professional capabilities, not your strange hobby, your recent back surgery, or that you’re relocating because your ex was a nightmare.
If you cross the line, there’s a good chance that the hiring manager is going to have immediate doubts about you as a candidate. They may figure that you don’t know what is or isn’t appropriate to discuss in a professional environment, at a minimum.
Oversharing doesn’t help you stand out, at least, not in a good way. So, resist the urge to tell them about any aspect of your life that isn’t highly relevant to the job.
Remember, cover letters are short. Don’t waste real estate on something that isn’t making your value proposition stronger.
Top 10 Cover Letter Tips
Now it’s time for what you’ve been waiting for. Here are 10 cover letter tips that can help you make yours as awesome as possible.
1. Make It a Document, Not Just an Email
Alright, this piece of cover letter advice might seem a bit weird in the digital age. After all, if you’re applying via email, why shouldn’t you just put your cover letter in the body of the message?
Well, the thing is, many hiring managers still print out the attachments. A surprising number of companies rely heavily on paper files. If your cover letter isn’t in a separate document, it might not get printed. That means it gets detached from the rest of your application.
Make sure your cover letter is printable, and not just as an email. That way, if this hiring manager prefers to review paper documents, you’re covered.
2. Use Keywords
If the company you want to work for uses an ATS, there’s a chance your cover letter and resume will go through a keyword screening. That can work in your favor, giving you another place to get some valuable keywords in.
Now, you don’t want to just regurgitate what’s in your resume. Instead, if you didn’t get a chance to tap on a keyword in your resume (or could only fit it in once), you can use your cover letter to cover it.
3. Watch Your Sentence Structure
Since you’re writing about yourself, you may have a tendency to start every sentence with “I.” While you can do that on occasion, if every sentence starts “I,” one after another, the tone of your cover letter is going to be a miss.
Similarly, if every sentence is the same length, you’ll run into trouble. It makes your cover letter sound monotonous and, monotonous often equals boring. You’re trying to catch the hiring manager’s attention, so mix things up a bit.
Make sure you use different starting words and vary your sentence length. It’ll make your cover letter more interesting, and that’s ridiculously important.
4. Talk About Them
Creating a value proposition means showing how your skills will make life easier for them. Discuss yourself but only in the context of applying your capabilities to solve their problems. That makes you look like a solution, and that’s what you really want.
One of the simplest ways to pull this off is to identify a pain point. Then, you can mention it briefly and follow that up with how you can make it easier to overcome. Easy peasy.
5. Match Tone
Hiring managers need to find candidates that are also great culture fits. If you want to highlight yourself as a potential match, use the company’s tone as a guide.
See what language they use in social media posts, mission and values statements, website, and job ad. Then, convey a similar tone, while keeping things professional. It’ll make you seem like a better fit, and that’s a great thing.
6. Use Numbers
Quantifying your cover letter is just as important as quantifying your resume. Numbers stand out visually and provide valuable context. So add in some digits whenever it’s appropriate.
7. Make the Most of Your Opening Line
While your first paragraph needs to serve as an introduction, that doesn’t mean you have to start with, “My name is…” In fact, you shouldn’t. Your name is at the top of the page, so you don’t need to repeat yourself.
Similarly, starting with, “I’m applying to [position]…” won’t help you stand out. While you do need to cover that information, consider making your first sentence something different.
Use a relevant quote. Highlight your professional motto. Lead with a brief anecdote. Any of those options are fairly unique, and may increase your odds of standing out.
8. Go Image-Free
Pictures, graphics, emojis… they don’t usually have a place in a cover letter. Plus, if your cover letter is screened by an ATS, anything other than text can confuse the system, and that could hurt you. So, leave the images out.
9. Skip Cliches
If you want to be unmemorable, rely on cliches. Phrases like “go-getter” and “team player” won’t help you. You’re better off using your achievements to showcase those traits than telling the hiring manager you have them.
10. Follow the Directions
If there are any directions regarding the cover letter, follow them to the letter, period. Failing to follow the instructions won’t result in anything but a rejection.
Putting It All Together
Ultimately, all of the cover letter tips above can help you stand out from the crowd. Make use of every single one. That way, you can stand out from the crowd for all of the right reasons.
Remember, you’re an exceptional candidate. Let that shine through in your cover letter.
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