"It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I'm constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round," writes Slate editor Katherine Goldstein. "Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé."
That noticeability, Goldstein says, depends on demonstrating that you know the organization and that you are the perfect fit and then distilling that detailed argument into a cordial few words.
It goes like this:
The better move is to let the cat out of the bag. In the first sentence, state why you're excited about the job and why you're the right fit. As HBR argues, you want to open with detail. Here's an example:
I'm an environmental fundraising professional with more than 15 years of experience and I’d love to bring my expertise and enthusiasm to your growing development team.
A much stronger open than saying you saw the listing on LinkedIn.
Let's try to gain some empathy for the pain of the hiring manager: they're getting slammed with stacks of applications every time they post a listing. Goldstein, the Slate editor, says she's read "something like 500" applications for entry-level media gigs. That's why a generic opening is so ineffective—it's just like everybody else's.
Friends hire their friends. As the New York Times reports:
Riju Parakh wasn't even looking for a new job ... But when a friend at Ernst & Young recommended her, Ms. Parakh’s résumé was quickly separated from the thousands the firm receives every week because she was referred by a current employee, and within three weeks she was hired. "You know how long this usually takes," she said. "It was miraculous."
Internal referrals account for 45% of Ernst & Young's hires. That sends a strong signal: expand the shape of your network to engineer your own nepotism. Then, when you write the cover letter, highlight those connections.
Speaking of personal connections, let's do away with "To Whom It May Concern"; between LinkedIn, Twitter, and the company's site, the actual name of the person doing the hiring should be discoverable.
"Do some research beyond reading the job description," says Lees, the author of Knockout CV. To do that, figure out the challenges the company (and their industry) is facing and where they see their growth sectors. This can be done by reading the news, yes, but as Extreme Productivity scribe Bob Pozen tells us, the best way to know what people's working lives are like is to talk to them.
Getting someone's ear is easier than you think (journalists do it for a living). You could ask for an informational interview at the outset, or failing that, try and grab coffee (and remember to take notes).
A startup might love your goofy-casual cadence; the aforementioned Ernst & Young may not.
After doing all this research—combing through their website, reading every scrap of news, and talking to a few people in the company and industry—you should have a solid sense of what skills the company is searching for.
"Show that you know what the company does and some of the challenges it faces," Amy Gallo writes at HBR. "Then talk about how your experience has equipped you to meet those needs; perhaps explain how you solved a similar problem in the past or share a relevant accomplishment."
Telling the story of how you saw a problem, how you solved it, and how you can do the same for them is a reliable strategy. In fact, it's the only thing that Google has found is consistent among successful hires.
Hat tip: HBR