Hope Springs Internal™

May 13, 2009

Cover Letters Help Candidates Get Interviews

Filed under: coaching — by latancs @ 2:27 pm

In today’s fast-paced, digital environment, it’s often tempting to forego a cover letter as part of the job application process, particularly if its submission is optional.   However, a well crafted cover letter gives you an additional opportunity to highlight and sell your skills and experiences to an employer or recruiter.   Use a cover letter to respond to an advertisement, follow up on an interview or to introduce yourself to a networking prospect, using the guidelines below.

First, recognize that a cover letter is a marketing tool—in other words, it shouldn’t be viewed as a form letter, cramming facts into a cookie-cutter template or indicating nothing more than a perfunctory expression of interest in the position.   In some instances, an employer may choose to read a cover letter first to get an overall sense of your background, writing style, or personal characteristics.   Accordingly, make sure you prepare a letter that reflects how your background and experiences match the needs of that particular employer in an engaging manner, as explained below.

Whenever possible, personalize the letter.   A letter beginning with the old stand-by “Dear Sir or Madam” or a similar greeting should be avoided unless it is impossible to determine the identity of the recipient.   In many cases, an advertisement will indicate that a resume should be directed to the holder of a certain title (e.g., compliance manager) or to a department (e.g, human resources).   Demonstrate your resourcefulness by contacting the company for the name of the appropriate manager or director and then address that person in your letter.   Also keep in mind that the cover letter is a form of business correspondence.   Therefore, as a general rule, use an appropriate salutation to address the recipient (Mr. Smith/Ms. Jones), keeping in mind the conventions of the industry to which you’re applying. Use consistent margins and spacing throughout the letter as well. Moreover, don’t forget to date the letter and when signing it, close with “Sincerely” or another commonly used business phrase.   It is also good practice to use the same font style for both the letter and résumé. Although e-mail cover letters have become a popular vehicle, don’t let the informality of the medium give way to improper means of correspondence, such as abbreviated words or the use of ALLCAPS.   Additionally, if the advertisement requires an online submission, be certain to observe any particular requirements for indicating the job to which you’re applying in the subject line of the e-mail.   In the absence of any subject line instructions, be careful with the use of a glib or catchy subject line in your e-mail.   Unless you know your intended audience well, it could reflect on your professionalism.   Above all, proofread your submission regardless of the medium.   Don’t let careless errors torpedo your job opportunities. Attention to detail is paramount, a practice you should illustrate painstakingly from the first contact with an employer.

Another important point about cover letter writing is to be succinct.   As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Consider, too, that you have about thirty seconds to make a good impression with the party reading your letter.   Therefore, a cover letter should generally not exceed one page in length, typically separated into four main paragraphs.   To make the most of that space, think of your letter in three parts: the opening hook, a needs analysis, and a call to action.

A good opening has greater potential to catch the reader’s interest.   Often referred to as the “hook,” it should immediately explain why you are the best candidate for the position.   Therefore, avoid such common openings as “I am writing in response to your advertisement for a manager of financial services.”   Instead, lead with a compelling example of your performance that is related to a key element of the position.   Consider the difference between the above example and a sentence such as “Improving cash flow by $500,000 per month through a reorganization of accounting and collections functions illustrates my commitment to achieving operating efficiencies and highlights my qualifications to serve as your next manager of financial services.”   Keep the paragraph short; a strong hook (and perhaps some background information on where you saw the advertisement) is enough for this first paragraph.

Following the hook are two or three paragraphs explaining how your skills relate to the job.   However, be careful not to simply repeat the information that is in your résumé.   Your cover letter should focus on connecting key achievements highlighted in your résumé to the needs of your potential employer, using strong action verbs whenever possible.   Highlight these achievements using bullet points to draw out particular successes that are quantifiable in terms of dollars, a percentage increase in productivity or some other measure.   These points should also address the underlying challenge that led to the result.   Using bullet points helps the writer avoid excessive use of “I” in the narrative of the letter, which can make the candidate appear self-centered if overused.

After drawing attention to relevant achievements, create a compelling closing, or call to action.   Any sales professional will tell you that the key to closing the sale is to ask for the business.   Be enthusiastic and eager to be an asset to the company.   Either ask for an appointment or call at a time stated in your letter, followed by an expression of thanks for the reader’s consideration.  You’ve pitched your skills, experiences and proposed contributions, now close the deal!

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