- 90% of executives say writing cover letters is valuable, according to a Robert Half survey.
- Job seekers can help themselves by tailoring their cover letters to specific employers.
- Incorporating keywords that match terms in the job posting can help job seekers with companies that use resume-filtering software.
In the age of the digital recruiting, do cover letters matter anymore? The short answer: Yes. Surprising to some, they matter more now than ever.
In fact, a Robert Half poll found that 90 percent of executives consider cover letters a valuable tool when assessing job candidates. Yet, far too often, job seekers treat them as afterthoughts to the resume.
Your cover letter is your introduction to a company and an opportunity to make a good first impression on your prospective employer. So don't squander it. Resumes help employers — with a growing number of assists from software — wade through a huge pile of applications. But the cover letter is often the first thing the hiring manager sees, especially as the pile shrinks to likely candidates. It's an opportunity to provide a brief accompanying narrative of who you are and why you're qualified for the position. So why not take advantage of this chance to shine?
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Here are some tips for writing the kind of cover letter that helps your resume jump to the top of the pile — one that convinces hiring managers and HR professionals to bring you in for an interview.
1. Don't just rehash your resume
A strong cover letter should do much more than just restate salient details from your resume. Here's a brief checklist of important functions of a cover letter:
- Draw attention to specific skills and experience that make you an ideal candidate.
- Mention relevant skills and personal qualities the resume may not illustrate.
- Explain why you would love to have the job in question — and how it advances your personal career goals.
- Establish any personal connections to the company or hiring manager, and how you'd like to help the business grow.
- Justify any gaps in your resume.
2. Tailor it to a specific job
Just as we recommend for the resume, take the time to target your cover letter to the job at hand. Write a cover letter they can't ignore. Begin by carefully reviewing the job description, making a list of specific skills and experience that match this particular role.
Just as important, gather facts and figures that support your claims. For example, if you're applying for a managerial role, mention the size of teams and budgets you have managed. If it is a sales role, discuss specific sales goals you've achieved.
In addition to highlighting your talents, you can further personalize your cover letter by demonstrating your familiarity with the specific industry, employer and type of position.
Remember, your future employer doesn't just want a warm body. They want employees who love their work. They know these are the people who tend to perform better, serve as stronger team members and have greater potential to grow along with the business.
3. Address the hiring manager personally
Just as you personalize your resume to the role, you should also address the cover letter to the person actually hiring for the position. If it is not spelled out in the job posting, call the employer's main phone number and ask for the name and title of the hiring manager.
This is also your chance to show that you've done your research on the company, its mission and key leadership. Mention any personal connections you have to the company and colleagues you might have in common. The cover letter process underscores one of the chief reasons for attending professional conferences and luncheons. Many job referrals are based on personal connections.
4. Use a standard business letter format
A cover letter is not a quick email you dash off. You should write to the same standards as any formal business letter. Use a standard font size (10 or 12 point, in a readable font style such as Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri). Keep it to one page (generally three or four short paragraphs). And include your name and contact information at the top in a business letter format.
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5. Use keywords from the job description
Many employers use resume-filtering software that scans for resume keywords and evaluates how closely resumes and cover letters match the preferred skills and experience.
That means your cover letter should incorporate key phrases you've identified in the job description. During the writing process, review qualifications such as the type of degree required, the number of years' experience needed, specified software skills, organization and communication abilities, and project management background.
6. Proofread thoroughly
Once you're convinced you've made a strong argument for your candidacy, it's time to proofread your work. No hiring manager wants to see a great cover letter with typos and grammatical errors.
After you've given your cover letter a final polish, ask a friend with excellent grammar, punctuation and spelling skills to review it. Consider giving him or her a copy of the job posting so they can help make sure you've hit all the right points.
7. End on a high note
In your concluding paragraph, reiterate in a sentence or two why you are the right person for this job. Most hiring managers will go to the resume after reading your cover letter, so prepare them to notice what you want them to see next.
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