How to Make Sure Your Cover Letter is a Success

In a time when applicants can apply for hundreds of jobs at the click of a button, cover letters have a sea of sameness: "To whom it may concern: I'm a goal-oriented problem solver. Please feel free to contact me so I can tell you more about why you should hire me for." Yawn (and serious demerits if "insert position here" is not personalized). To make your cover letter work for you, not against you, you will need to be savvy.

How to assure your cover letterKnow what a hiring manager is looking for

An experienced hiring manager can distinguish between a good and bad cover letter within minutes. A quick scan reveals whether applicants are serious about a position or simply blasting out their resume to any position within a 50-mile radius. Signs of a serious applicant include:

  • A salutation addressed to a real person. Sometimes it's hard to decipher corporate structure and determine exactly who the hiring manager will be, but you still need to try. To get credit for taking time to research, you just need to get into the ballpark of correct. Use the company website, LinkedIn, and some good old-fashioned Googling to determine your cover letter's recipient. (Pay heed to gender-neutral names. Do not assume "Lynn" is a woman, for instance. And confirm the spelling.)
  • Personalization. A hiring manager can tell if you are using the same cover letter repeatedly. If your letter does not mention the company's name, the position to which you are applying, or any relevant details from the job posting, it's safe to assume you simply clicked "Apply." Immediately signal your interest by taking the time to personalize your letter to the position with relevant and accurate details.
  • Professional communication. No matter what industry, you need to be able to communicate clearly and concisely with colleagues and customers. Your cover letter needs to be short, to the point, and error-free. A glaring typo or inaccurate information (another company's name, the wrong position) will land your application in the discard pile.
  • Use of keywords from the job posting. In today's world of applicant-tracking systems (ATS), a computer might scan your letter before a human. Make sure the ATS "sees" the right keywords.

Create a template for cover letter success

Personalizing your cover letter does not mean starting with a blank piece of paper every time. Once you have applied to a few positions, look for patterns in the letters you have written so you can build a library of templates. When a new posting interests you, open up the relevant template, personalize it with relevant details, and send it on.

As you develop templates, remember less is more. Reading cover letters is not fun, and you need to stand out from the crowd in a good, not gimmicky way. A well-crafted letter can convey in three paragraphs what problem the hiring manager is trying to solve, how you are uniquely qualified to be the solution, and your desire to discuss further. That is all you need to say.

Be wary of bloated language and inappropriate tone

Too many candidates—in an attempt to fill out the page—add superfluous language. Not only is this bad writing, but also it can quickly seem arrogant instead of confident. Compare "Please feel free to reach out to me to discuss why I'm the right person for this position" to "I look forward to discussing my application with you." The difference is subtle, but the former presumes the hiring manager needs to be invited to talk to you, while the latter confidently assumes they will be interested. You are presenting a possible solution to the hiring manager, not doing them a favor.

The cover letter is just one of the first steps to getting your foot in the door. Don't trip.

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