When you're searching for a job, cover letters are hugely important. Despite that, many people fall into the habit of recycling the same old cover letter again and again — even if they wrote it more than 10 years ago. Don't let this happen to you! Instead, follow these tips for customizing your letter and standing out from the pack.
1Get assistance if needed. Your letter must be well-written, personable, clear and mistake-free. If writing just isn't your strong suit, get some help. Ask a trusted friend who writes well to help you craft a letter, or you can turn to the wealth of cover letter samples available on the Internet. (One good place to access a variety of samples — www.quintcareers.com/covres.html — and yes, "covers" is misspelled in that URL!) If you rely on a sample letter for help, do whatever you can to phrase your letter in your own words to make it sound like you.
2Avoid cliches and fluff. Your letter's opening paragraph should clearly spell out the position you're seeking and emphasize why you're an ideal fit for the job. Don't waste space with formulaic phrases — ("As you can see on my resume enclosed herewith" is a no-no) — and don't rehash the contents of your resume. Rather, give specific, recent examples of successes in your field or in school or volunteer work you've done and come across as a person the employer would like to get to know.
3Address your letter to a specific person. Never use generic salutations such as "To Whom It May Concern," "Dear Sir or Madam," "Dear Human Resources Director" or "Gentlemen." Make a real effort to get the name of a specific hiring manager, HR director or recruiter. Call the company in question and ask for help getting the correct individual — and correct name spelling and title — for that person.
4Be concise. In almost every imaginable situation, cover letters should not exceed one page in length. They should be three to four paragraphs long, with no more than one to three sentences in each paragraph. The brutal reality is that your letter likely will be skimmed in fewer than 15 seconds by a very busy person, so brevity and clarity are key.
5Explain what you have to offer. Rather than stressing what you think the employer can do for you and your career dreams, spell out what you can do for the employer. Do this by detailing how you meet the job requirements and providing one or two recent examples as evidence.
6Remember to include keywords. Before your letter and resume ever get reviewed by a human being, chances are high it will be scanned by a computer first. The scan's purpose will be to search for keywords — relevant job titles, responsibilities, skills and industry-specific terms — to identify job candidates who seem a good fit. If you're applying for an advertised position, take note of the desired skillslisted, then incorporate the same or similar words and key phrases into your cover letter and resume.
7Close with a call to action — for both of you. Don't end your letter with an unassertive, "I look forward to hearing from you." Instead, request an interview, and promise to follow up within a certain period of time to arrange it. And then, FOLLOW UP. This beats waiting around for a phone call, and it increases your chances of scoring face-to-face interviews.
8Look like a pro. Print your letter on high-quality white or off-white paper, and choose a professional-looking, non-decorative font. Opt for black ink, and avoid italics and underlining. All of this will make it easier for the computer to scan your letter for keywords.
9Follow instructions with care. Perhaps the employer in question only wants electronic submissions from job candidates. If so, do just that and don't send along hard copies of your materials. Be aware that e-mailed correspondence probably should be a little bit shorter than what you otherwise might have sent.
10Proofread, proofread, proofread. Carefully check for any errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, names, titles, addresses and spacing. Again, if this isn't your strength, turn to a trusted friend or colleague for assistance. Always make a point of reading your letter out loud so you can hear its rhythm and pacing. And one last cautionary note: Don't forget to sign it!
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Quintessential Careers (www.quintcareers.com); USA Today (www.usatoday.com/money/jobcenter/); Monster.com (www.monster.com)