What’s the deal with cover letters anyway? Are they just a formality or do hiring managers actually read them? Does anyone really care what’s in them?
These are just a few of the many questions being asked by up-and-coming professionals like you—and the answers are important to know!
Before we get started ...
When faced with writing your first few cover letters, you will probably Google a “how to” question for tips. (Maybe you found this article that way!) Searching the Internet for answers is a great use of your digital resources. But keep in mind that because there is such a wealth of knowledge online, many of the tips may seem repetitive.
You have two options here. You could create a cover letter that blends right in with a big robot army of perfectly identical, boring cover letters. Or you could to get a little creative. It’s important to have the basics but it’s also important to stand out.
That being said, this article will provide you with some great fundamentals, along with some unique ideas to boost your cover letter creativity. We enlisted a handful of human resources (HR) professionals and career experts to find out what really makes a great cover letter.
Here’s what they had to say:
Q: What makes a good cover letter?
A: Keep it short and sweet.
HR pros across the board agreed that this is a must for cover letters. Put yourself in their shoes: Would you want to read three pages of blah, blah, blah about an applicant? Or would you prefer a short, condensed couple of paragraphs that quickly explain why that person is great for the job? Research the company so you can highlight your knowledge about the organization throughout the letter. But otherwise, keep things concise.
“The best thing to include is specific information that shows you’ve done your homework on the company with specific linkage to why you are uniquely qualified for the role,” says Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders. “A short, but meaty, customized letter is best.”
If you’re sending it in an email, she recommends you include hyperlinks to external sites that will enhance your brand, such as your LinkedIn profile, professional articles you’ve written or awards you’ve won.
Q: What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing cover letters?
A: Watch the company name you use and spell check.
Since the job market is extremely competitive these days, small mistakes in cover letters can often cost applicants the opportunity for an interview. One of the most embarrassing (and avoidable) mistakes you can make is applying for a position, clicking send on the email that has your resume and cover letter attached and discovering you emailed Target with a cover letter written to General Mills.
“In their rush to apply for a job, many job seekers accidentally send a cover letter that has the wrong company name or is addressed to the wrong person,” explains Chaz Pitts-Kyser, author of the book, Careeranista. “Or, just as embarrassing, they misspell someone’s name…you should always double check that you have the right info before pressing send.”
A: Be sure to include a healthy balance of company info and personal info.
One thing many employers detest is reading a cover letter that simply echoes the company mission and other well-known qualities about the organization. A hiring manager wants to know you did your homework but they don’t need you to just recite the “About Us” section from their website. Make an effort to highlight your own knowledge and experience as well as your familiarity with the company. It’s a tricky line to walk but with practice, you’ll find the perfect balance!
Too many job applicants fail to explain how their experience and education directly align to the position for which they are applying, Pitts-Kyser explains. He views the cover letter as an opportunity to connect the dots between your background and the position, rather than simply repeating generic information that’s already in your resume.
“Employers can tell when you are using the same canned cover letter you’ve sent to countless other people, and they are never impressed,” Pitts-Kyser says.
Q: What can I do to make my cover letter stand out?
A: Get creative and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.
The rise in technology has triggered a rise in creativity. Jobs in digital areas such as graphic design and software development have popped up and are steadily growing in number. This evolution has transformed what was once considered “the norm.” It remains true that when writing your cover letter you should make sure you address the specific job requirements and that your spelling is impeccable, but adding a creative twist is also important.
Perhaps you enlist the help of your graphic designer friend or maybe you simply change the format of the letter. Keep things clean and professional but don’t be afraid to think outside of the box.
One unique idea suggested by Darrell Gurney, a career coach and former executive recruiter, is to format your cover letter in two columns. One column entitled “Your Requirements” and the other entitled “My Qualifications.” Include an example of your experience that directly aligns with each prerequisite listed.
“Like a litmus test, you put a sentence under ‘requirements’ and match it with a sentence under ‘qualifications’,” Gurney says. “It stands out from other cover letters with paragraph diatribes and shows that you really thought about what was being asked for.”
Q: Do I need to write a cover letter for every job I apply for?
A: Absolutely yes!
Our panel of pros agrees that you should ALWAYS include a cover letter. Or at the very least, treat the email to which your resume is attached as a cover letter. You’re making a first impression and you don’t want to come across as an applicant who is merely firing off resumes to every job post you see available.
Researching a company and writing a cover letter that is proportionate to the position will take some time. But in the long run, you’ll look like you know what you’re talking about and you’ll prove that you’re willing to go the extra mile.
“Most importantly, I would like to see that a candidate actually took the time to go to my website and do some basic homework,” explains Sarah Weinberger, founder and CEO of Butterflyvista Corporation. “I do not want to see that the candidate [simply] threw his or her resume against a wall and hoped that it stuck.”
Practice, practice, practice
While writing a cover letter for each job you apply for may seem like a heavy load, our HR pros say it’ll definitely be worth your while. The more you write the better you’ll become!
It takes practice to perfect your cover-letter-writing techniques. So take these tips and start putting them to the test. You may be surprised how quickly a killer cover letter can lead to more interviews!
For more advice to assist you in your job search, visit the Rasmussen College Career Center.