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Cover Letter Advice


Get Results with Your Cover Letter

by Sherrie Gong Taguchi of Career-Inspirations

Cover letters are where you make your all-important first impression. Most often they determine whether a recruiter decides to continue on and review your resume. You have about 30 seconds to convey compelling information that will catch and keep the reader's attention. At their best, stand-out cover letters are strategic, persuasive, and concise. Ideally, cover letters will achieve three objectives. They will:

  • Provide an effective introduction to and compelling context for your resume.
  • Engage the reader so that he or she will want to find out more about you by reviewing your resume and hopefully, inviting you for an interview.
  • Help position you as a strong contender and a viable good fit vis--vis the numerous candidates applying for the job.

The best cover letters are focused and targeted. They don't hint of being a "form" letter that is seeing the rounds as a mass mailing. When I was recruiting for everything from entry-level positions to the senior VP level, if I noted that a person did not care enough to write an original cover letter, I concluded that this was clear evidence of the person's lack of commitment and savvy. Nowadays, with the huge volume of talented candidates vying for the small number of jobs, cover letters are more critical than ever. At every stage in your job search process, you'll need to do your best and stand out among the sea of worthy contenders.

To help you do your best, here are my top-ten tips talking to the finer points of crafting a winning cover letter. The first five focus on mechanics and style. The last five tips cover content and substance. Following the tips is a quick worksheet to help get you started.

  1. Address letters to a specific person. Ideally this would be the decision maker/hiring manager, HR manager, or to whomever you are sending your resume. Make sure to use a title like Mr. or Ms. and the last name. Typically, it's better to be more formal at the start. Often you are invited to send resumes to an address with no name. A creative way to approach this is to use: "Dear XYZ company manager" or "Dear Hiring Manager." This is better than the old hat, "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam."
  2. Keep your letter brief. Try for less than one page. The optimal length is about half a page.
  3. Use clear, professional language. Steer away from buzzwords, acronyms, jargon, and anything overly personal.
  4. "Talk" to the person. Write your letter as though you are speaking to the person who is reading it - as if you were engaging them in a conversation. Let your warmth, enthusiasm, and energy shine through.
  5. Choose professional-looking paper stock. Show that you care about your cover letter and resume by paying attention to the finer details. Use the same paper that you use for your resume for your cover letter so the two coordinate. White or cream with a subtle weave or texture is nice. (Of course, e-mailing cover letters with your resume is quite common these days. In this case, focus on tips one to four).

Now, let's focus on the content of your letter.

  1. Cover four sections in your letter. Each section will be covered more in-depth after the tips in the "cover letter outline."
  2. Do not include details from your resume. That would be redundant and a waste of the recruiter's time. Craft a few compelling, overarching statements for your letter that help the recruiter assess quickly who you are and what you have to offer. Draw the reader in. Persuade the person to want to read your resume and find out more about you.
  3. Make every word count. If there's a word or phrase in there that doesn't prove a point or isn't there to add solid proof of your strong candidacy, then it's clutter. Streamline your letter as much as possible.
  4. Ask at least three people to read your letter. Get their feedback about what they think your content conveys about you. Is it sending the message you desire? Those who don't know you well are the best pre-screeners, because they won't cut you any slack nor will they be influenced by how great a person they know you are in real life. Take this opportunity to find and fix typos, grammatical errors, overuse of certain words, anything that sounds boastful or too good to be true.
  5. Spend quality time on your letter. Remember that your cover letter is the first impression of you. Depending on how well you know yourself and your selling points and how strong a writer you are, you will need a minimum of 30 minutes to a few hours for each letter. For each job you are going for, be sure to customize the letter. Write one that is unique to the company and the role you are looking to fill.

Sherrie Gong Taguchi is a leading author and career management expert. Her two popular books are helping thousands of job seekers and career changers - whether just out of school or at the executive level - worldwide. Both books are available on BarnesandNoble.com.

Hiring the Best and Brightest - A Roadmap to MBA Recruiting is an excellent resource for understanding the recruiting process and preparing for the important phases of a job search.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting the Career You Want and What to Do Once You Have - It provides strategies and advice for managing your career over a lifetime, including self-assessment exercises, a job search action, and case examples from a diverse group of people (including those from consulting, banking, entertainment, education, high tech, non-profit, venture capital, top MBA programs and others) who share the valuable lessons they have learned.

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