It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018
How much would you love to work for Amazon, or eBay, or Google? You might be a perfect fit for the job, but there’s a lot of competition. These large companies often use recruiting systems to wade through the sometimes hundreds or thousands of applicants. The more you know about this process, the better your chances of making it to an interview and hopefully, a job.
I had the opportunity to speak to Steve Linder, partner at Workplace Group, a recruitment outsourcing agency, and Amy Hunt, a career recruiter who has worked for several different companies and recruiting agencies, mostly recently for Duct Tape. They had some amazing tips and advice about how to look good to a recruiter and make it through the process from application to interview. In fact, they had so much that I can’t fit it all into one blog post, so expect at least one more.
Despite all the expertise that I was able to tap into, both Amy and Steve said that processes can vary from company to company, and some recruiters may consider some information (such as employment dates or past salary) more important than others. However, many of these tips will be useful even if you’re applying to the Kwik-E-Mart down the street, and any peek behind-the-scenes is going to be helpful if you’re working to get a foot in the door.
This first post will be entirely about your résumé. It’s the absolute most important item in your arsenal. It’s the first thing a recruiter (the first human to see your application) will look at. If it doesn’t meet the minimum qualifications, the accompanying cover letter won’t even see the light of day. There are a few essential things to know when preparing your résumé for a recruiter.
- Your résumé is your one chance to prove you’ve got what it takes to do the job and do it well. A recruiter may not look at your cover letter at all, even if he/she sends your application to the next step, to the hiring manager. “As a recruiter, I don’t have time to read cover letters,” says Hunt. “I need to get to the meat.”
- “Every résumé does get reviewed,” Hunt says. The recruiter may use pre-screening questions on the application, looking for and weeding out some basic qualifications, such as “what is your degree in,” “what are your salary expectations,” and “what were you making in your last job.” However, even if your application “fails” the pre-screen, a recruiter may still open your application to see why and if you may still be a fit for the position.
- Your résumé and application should be completely accurate and honest. Any inconsistencies will immediately send your application to the trash pile. “Honesty is the best policy,” Linder says. “Disclosure means everything. Forgetting about a violation, a conviction, is going to be problematic. Misrepresenting dates of employment is going to be problematic.”
- Showing relevant experience in your résumé is very important. If you don’t have the experience necessary for the job, no amount of fancy wording is going to get you pass the recruiter. If you don’t meet the minimum requirements for the job, you have no business applying for it.
- In your résumé, use the same language used in the job posting. “Using words in your résumé that match the words in the job posting is probably a really smart thing to do,” Linder says. “Using creative, colorful language when applying to these systems isn’t going to be all that helpful.” You want to make it easy for a recruiter to see that you’re a good candidate for the position. Be clear and specific, and show that you have relevant experience to offer the company.
- Long résumés are okay. “The whole ‘keeping it to one page’ is only true for current graduates,” Hunt says. “It’s totally ok if your résumé is two pages. It’s totally ok if your résumé is three pages if you’re some super technical engineering technology guru.” If you have extensive experience, include it all. Take the time and space to make sure your experience matches the job description, assuming you’ve done all those things. “It’s been drilled into everyone’s head that they should be one page, and I just want to go around and smack all of the professors for saying that. Stop telling people that.”
- With the exception of the length rule, most of the standard résumé rules apply. Formatting doesn’t matter so much, but making sure it is clear and concise, easy to read and to the point, and includes dates of employment (month and year) will encourage a recruiter to send your résumé to the next step.
- Gaps between jobs on your résumé aren’t such a big deal. Times are hard, and recruiters get that. Hunt says, “What have you been doing, that’s probably the big thing. What have you been doing between the gap? Were you sitting around watching television and collecting unemployment, or were you taking classes, job searching, interviewing?” Showing that you were productive during a break between jobs is far better than otherwise. If you’ve been at a place for less than three years, consider adding the reason for leaving on your résumé. The fewer questions a recruiter or hiring manager has with your application, the better.
Photo by Alex France via cc.