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Five Tips to Make Your Cover Letter a Winner

One way to make a consulting cover letter stand out is writing the word "Booz" in "Booz Allen Hamilton" with an "e" on the end.

Though if you do that, you should expect an automatic "ding."

If you really want the job, follow these guidelines to make your cover letter a winner.

Keep It Short and Sweet

"Keep it short and sweet," says Michelle Hutton, the human resources manager at American Management Systems. "Pick out things that really say to the recruiter, 'I know what this company is about, and I'm writing to the specific style or culture of this company.'"

Cover letters should highlight a few things that are important in the resume. If you're sending the resume and cover letter as an e-mail attachment, you'll want to keep it short and sweet, too. Avoid an overlong history of your work experience-it makes for long paragraphs and a tedious read.

Cut Quickly to the Point

"I don't think a cover letter is particularly useful if it's an introduction of 'I'm interested in working for your company, I think it's a great place to work'-the person wouldn't have turned in a resume if they didn't think that was the case," says Sean Huurman, the national director of recruiting at BearingPoint.

Similarly, don't use the cover letter as a place to prattle on about the company you worked for previously; focus on what you achieved there. "Explain in a little more depth why your previous experience would be a particular match for the specific position," says Huurman, "so the recruiter says, 'I understand. This person wants this job because they did XYZ at their previous company.'"

If a contact suggested you apply, say so early on in the cover letter. "If the person writing the cover letter has a relationship with the firm, a client, or a friend of mine, they should have that information highlighted in the cover letter," says Dana Ellis, who heads recruiting at Arthur Andersen. According to Ellis, that information pardons a cover letter from the "20-second test."

Geri Parsons Golemme does recruiting infrastructure planning at A.D. Little. She advises against unnecessary bravado. "Don't say, 'This is the place for me, you need me, I'm going to come in and save the day.'" Golemme says, "Be genuine."

Be Specific

Don't ask if there are "any positions available." Specify the position you want. The more specific your cover letter, the more memorable you're likely to be. You might say what office you'd like to work in, if you're willing to travel, and the type of work you want to do.

A lot of people shy away from specifics in a cover letter for fear of not getting called for an interview, but that's a mistake. "If you know you want to be based in, for instance, the mid-Atlantic region or the D.C. metro area, go ahead and say that," says Hutton. "It's doing you and the recruiter a favor to narrow down the opportunities that we are considering you for."

Reserve Your Best Work for Your Resume

Your cover letter might not be looked at. Recruiters sometimes flip to the resume first, so make sure the resume stands alone without the letter.

This doesn't mean you should ignore the cover letter, but do reserve your best work for the resume. A.D. Little's Golemme says the recruiter will focus more on the resume. Arthur Andersen's Ellis said his eyes usually go to the resume first.

Use Your Spelling Checker

Check your grammar. Do your homework about the firm. Make sure you spell names of people, divisions, and, of course, the firm correctly. Ellis said he sometimes receives a cover letter addressed to "Ms. Dana Ellis," a clear indication the individual did not do his or her homework. Such cover letters find their home in the circular file.

Michael K. Norris frequently writes about and analyzes issues related to consulting and e-services.

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