In a world where every job posting put online is spammed with hundreds or thousands of resumes, writing a cover letter is an essential part of getting noticed by any employer. Taking the time to write a few specific paragraphs demonstrating your personality, enthusiasm, and qualifications could be the difference between getting or not getting an interview for the job of your dreams. I’m going to go over how to write a great, professional cover letter that will get you noticed, and point out a few common mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
Purpose of a cover letter
Let’s go over the purpose of a cover letter. A cover letter is a way to expand on strengths or explain weaknesses in your resume, and to demonstrate qualifications or experience that might not fit. It’s not a place to restate what you already put in your resume, so avoid just listing out what you’ve already said. Instead, think of your cover letter as a place to expand on your past experience and illustrate credibility.
Avoid common mistakes
There are common mistakes that a lot of job candidates make when writing a cover letter that you want to avoid. Don’t make your cover letter too long. It’s tempting to add in every bit of relevant information that might give you an edge, but hiring managers have limited time and will skip past cover letters that are short novels. Be sure not to state salary requirements in a cover letter unless the job posting specifically asks you too, as it can send the wrong impression.
Do your research
Before you even begin writing, there’s a bit of research to do. Find out the name of the person that you’re going to be sending the letter to. A hiring manager is more likely to read a letter beginning with ‘Dear Mr. Smith’ rather than ‘Dear Sir or Madam.’ You also want to find out the duties the job entails and problems you’ll be expected to solve. This will give you a chance to mention how you have solved similar problems in previous roles. Finally, researching and getting to know the company well means that you’ll be able to personalize the letter for the culture, the needs of the organization, and innovations that you can bring to their business.
A good cover letter can be constructed in only three paragraphs. The first paragraph should have a strong opener, expressing your sincere enthusiasm for the position and demonstrating that you have the skills to fit in. The mistake a lot of people here make is simply stating their name and their interest in the job posting, which is not enough to convince anyone you deserve the job. With every sentence you write, it needs to address why you’re the best choice for the job.
Here is an example of a bad opening sentence: ‘My name is John Adams and I am interested in the Human Resources position your company listed on the Los Angeles Craigslist.’
A much better opening sentence would sound like this: ‘I came across your posting for a Human Resources Director and was immediately excited at the possibility of bringing skills obtained during my years of experience managing Human Resources departments.’
The difference in tone, enthusiasm, personality, and general capability between the two openers is immediately apparent. If you were a hiring manager, which person would you want to interview?
After the strong first sentence the first paragraph of your cover letter can include a sentence or two describing your years of experience in a similar position, mentioning a mutual contact who pointed you to the listing, or something similarly relevant and concise.
The next portion of your cover letter is going to be the ‘meat’ of it. Now that you have the attention of the hiring manager, it’s time to convince him/her that hiring you is a safe and sound choice.
Include in the middle paragraph a few (if not all) of the following things:
- Specific ways that you could solve problems the company has, save the company money, or make the company more efficient
- Quantifiable achievements from previous roles, such as “I pulled together all the information on how to bill for letters that had been scattered into dozens of sources and condensed them into one handbook for new hires, saving our firm over ten hours of training time per new hire.”
- Links to portfolios such as videos, websites, samples, or anything else relevant to the job duty
- An explanation of any glaring problems on your resume such as a multi-year gaps between jobs or only having stayed at your past five jobs for a year
- Volunteer experience
Do not mention that don’t have a skill that the requires. Especially if you could learn it in a reasonable amount of time. It’s your job to make yourself look as appealing as possible, and it’s their job to decide whether they like you enough to overlook that you don’t check every single box on their list. A cover letter is a place to make yourself look strong, not a place to point out weaknesses that they might not have noticed.
The final paragraph of your cover letter should concisely restate the positive attributes named in the rest of the letter, and thank the person by name for their time. You also want to leave your contact information so that they can reach you.
Final tip – it may sound obvious, but very carefully proofread and edit your cover letter before pressing send. Including an obvious typo or the name of another company you’re applying to are huge red flags that could cause even the most qualified candidate to not get a call.
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