Tips for a successful cover letter
By Jim Watson, with info from Phyllis Korkki, The New York Times
Cover letters are still necessary, and in a competitive market they can give you a serious edge if they are written and presented effectively. Cover letters are a graceful way to introduce yourself, to convey your personality and to impress a hiring manager with your experience and your writing skills. You can also tailor them to a specific company in ways that you cannot with a résumé.
Hiring decision makers are looking for ways to exclude you as they narrow down their applications, she said. Do not give them that ammunition.
• Structure your letter so that it stresses the company and what you can do to help it reach its goals. Avoid making the cover letter all about you: “I did this, I’m looking for, I want to ...”
• Don't include too much information - for example, very specific salary or geographic requirements.
• Don't point out that you do not meet all the criteria in the job description. You can deal with that later, if you get an interview.
The head of Human Resources for a gigantic company would stop reading a cover letter or resume if he came across a mistake, figuring it signaled at least a lack of care, if not also a lack of skill. "How do I know this person will proofread the letters he writes to shareholders? What if he someday leaves a zero or two off one of our financial statements? I better put this resume aside and look for someone who's more accurate and thorough."
Everybody makes mistakes, even employers. But making one minor mistake on a resume or in a cover letter is unacceptable. A typo makes a bad impression on the potential client, contact, or interviewer and can be an actual deal breaker. If you cannot afford to pay someone to review your cover letter and résumé, enlist a friend or a family member with good language skills to proofread it.
Your cover letter should be short - generally no longer than three paragraphs.
• Find the decision maker’s name, and use it in the salutation. If you are applying to a blind ad, say “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To the Hiring Manager.” Cover letters that had no salutation at all or began with “Hey there” are not impressive. Effective cover letters are tailored to an individual job or company. Draw parallels between what you have and what the employer wants.
• In the first paragraph, explain why you are writing - it may be that you are answering an ad, that you were referred to the company through networking, or that you learned that the company is expanding. This paragraph is the foundation - use more persuasive, subjective language than on your resume. Phrases like “I am highly qualified” or “I have proven success” are appropriate.
• In the middle paragraph, explain why you are good candidate, and show that you are knowledgeable about the company. Evaluate the experience on your resume: “As my resume shows, I have worked in all areas of the graphic arts.” Convey a clear story about your career, and highlight one or two specific past achievements. This can either be done as a narrative or in bullet points. You can also highlight qualities you possess that may not fit the confines of a résumé - sum up your skills and accomplishments. Zero in on the qualifications listed in the job description. All great cover letters address the qualifications requested. “I am seasoned graphic designer with good leadership skills, ready to move into a management position,” or “As a graphic designer with five years experience creating brochures, retail signs and other promotional material, I am a good fit for your open position.”
• Finish the letter by indicating that you will follow up in the near future (and make good on that promise). Sign off with a “Sincerely,” “Cordially,” “Thank you for your consideration” or similar closer, followed by your name and, if you like, your e-mail address. In your closing sentences, state how you would be an asset to the company, rather than how much you want to work there. State how you will follow up.
Right: “I would like an opportunity to discuss how my skills fit your company’s needs. I will contact you next week to follow up.”
Wrong: “I think this job is perfect for me. I will wait to hear from you.”
A cover letter can be in an e-mail, an attachment, or a hard-copy. You can include your letter in the actual text of your e-mail message or place it above your résumé in an attachment. If you put it in a separate attachment from your résumé, you run the risk that a harried hiring manager will not click on it at all. If you place it in the text of your e-mail message, it should generally be shorter than if you use an attachment.
Then, if you really want to make an impression, make a hard copy of your cover letter and résumé and send it to the hiring manager by regular mail. Attach a handwritten note that says, “Second submission; I’m very interested.” Some applicants have doubled their rate of interviews simply from doing that.” Called this “double-hitting,” it works remarkably well.