Résumés get the attention, but a good cover letter can go a long way toward helping you get the attention of hiring decision-makers. A recent survey by ResumeLab found that 83% of respondents claimed that a great cover letter can land an interview even if your résumé isn’t good enough.
But what makes a good cover letter? This seven-point cheat sheet will help you write a letter that’s short, sweet, and gets attention.
First, be interesting
You have just a few seconds to grab the reader’s attention, so start with whatever it is about you that will grab their interest, says Amy Soricelli, vice president of career services at Berkeley College. If you’ve been referred by someone influential, lead with that. Otherwise, think about the fact or brief anecdote that will catch interest. It might be your experience, expertise, or a big impact you made, Scoricelli says. Avoid at all costs the typical—and drab—”I’m writing about your job listing,” she says.
Focus 100% on your value
Let recruiters and hiring managers know exactly how you’re of value. Pick out the most important skills, experiences, training, accolades, and other accomplishments, says career coach Ronald J. Auerbach, author of Think Like an Interviewer: Your Job Hunting Guide to Success. Share them in descending order of importance. Consider how you would use keywords from the job ad in your résumé and integrate them in your cover letter, too.
Think about your salutation
Auerbach says there are a number of salutation options ranging from “Dear Hiring Manager” to “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” When possible it’s best to address your cover letter to a person. However, if you’re responding to an ad, you may need to choose a generic option. The best one depends on your industry norms, he says. “Some feel these standards are outdated and should be avoided in favor of the more modern salutations. Others feel it’s better to avoid the modern ones and stick with the old standards,” he says.
Keep it short
Many companies now use applicant tracking systems, which can typically accommodate a cover letter up to 250 words, says career coach Rachel Montañez. “There has been some research done that shows that the length that typically gets past an applicant tracking system,” she says.
As for structure, Montañez typically recommends a compelling lead paragraph, then two to three short paragraphs or bullet points in the body highlighting your key strengths, and a closing that includes your interest in the next steps.
Show off (a little)
Between the opening and close, make a powerful case for why you’re the right person for the job and company, Montañez says. Use active words to describe how you truly made a difference. Instead of “I have worked on financial reports,” try “I single-handedly created my team’s financial reports and presented them to senior management.” Bring a sense of enthusiasm to the writing, she advises. Your cover letter shouldn’t just repeat what’s in your résumé. Work on adding something fresh.
It’s common advice, but cannot be overstated, Soricelli says. Typos can indicate carelessness and put you out of the running before you start. Use your word processing program’s spell check and editing functions and get someone who can spot typos and grammatical errors to take a look at it before you hit send. The reason career experts keep telling people to proofread is because the advice is often ignored, she says.
Your cover letter is an opportunity to give the person reading it a brief glimpse into who you are as a person, Soricelli says. Use it to tell a brief, interesting story about why you’re the best choice to hire. Take a little time with the cover letter to be sure it is tailored to the job and reflects you and your personality.