Mark Twain once said, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” It’s a good reminder: It does take time to write a short, well-crafted letter.
I know the challenge of crafting a great business letter because one of my responsibilities early in my career was writing letters for the signature of the CEO in one of Canada’s big banks. These letters had to be gracious, clear, compelling, and well-structured. These are the same requirements your cover letter must fulfill when you apply for a job.
The more focused you are in your job search, the more time you’ll have to write a cover letter that can be a great asset in your job hunt. Here are six ways to make your letter more inspiring:
1. SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY
The first way to make your letter inspiring is to see it as an opportunity. Even if the company doesn’t ask for a cover letter explicitly, don’t miss out on the chance to include one in your application. It will serve you well, assuming it’s well-written.
I spoke with one firm that said the majority of applicants don’t include a cover letter even when the company requests one. That means the candidates are ruled out. Writing letters may seem old-school, but cover letters do have a number of benefits.
A cover letter gives you an opportunity to personalize your submission, show your interest in and knowledge of the hiring company, and set forth your credentials in a way that is not as formulaic as in your résumé.
2. TELL YOUR STORY
Writing a cover letter gives you the chance to open up and share things about yourself that would be impossible in a résumé. I recently spoke with Marissa Dyck, who is the director of people and operations of the Humphrey Group, a firm I founded many decades ago, about how she views cover letters.
“The cover letter provides an opportunity to tell your story and bring everything together,” she told me. “You can say in a cover letter ‘I’ve had many different types of jobs, and been in several industries, but they all show my broad passion for marketing.'”
Or “You might say ‘it looks like I’ve jumped around a lot, but a common theme throughout all my work experiences is my ability to solve problems.'” In other words, you can create a unified picture of yourself, and if necessary, close the gaps in your career history and smooth things out.
3. GET PERSONAL
Use the letter to warm up the relationship you’d like to have with the hiring company. To strike the right tone, select language that brings you as a person forward and builds a connection with your audience. Phrases like “I was delighted to learn,” “I am excited about,” “I am keen to find out,” “I am familiar with,” and “I am confident that” put you on the map as someone who has an emotional connection with the job opportunity and the prospective company.
Be careful, though, not to overuse these word choices. Two or three of these expressions will be fine. Use more and you’ll look like it’s all about you.
4. SHOW ADMIRATION
All well-crafted cover letters demonstrate your commitment to the hiring company in some form. Do your research and show you are impressed with what they’ve done or stand for. Make use of phrases such as “I have long admired your firm,” or “Your mission is a powerful one,” or “Your reputation is well established.”
However, make sure when you do show admiration that it rings true. The difference has to do with tone and specificity. If you say “I’ve long admired your firm,” show something concrete that you admire. Its vision? Its products? Its leadership?
Dyck says that some successful candidates applying to her firm have shown they were inspired by the CEO’s podcasts, or took one of the firm’s programs and loved it.
5. STRUCTURE THE LETTER
Take time to create a well-structured cover letter. It should have three parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Ideally these will fit on one page.
The introduction is the first paragraph, which itself should be divided into two parts: (1) an opening sentence that explains you’re applying for the job (“I’m delighted to apply for the position of X”), and (2) a second sentence that positions you as a strong candidate (“I have a strong background in HR planning and would welcome the opportunity to contribute to your company in this area.”) This second sentence is your message.
The body of your letter should set forth your qualifications and explain why you are ideal for the job. It can be one paragraph if your job history is short, or 2-3 paragraphs if it’s more extensive. But make sure it aligns with the job description.
The conclusion is the final paragraph where you restate your interest and qualifications and allude to next steps.
This structure will allow you to sell yourself, without ever having to say “I am the best candidate.” (In fact, you shouldn’t ever say you are the best; that’s their decision to make.) But the structure I’ve recommended will put you in a very strong position.
6. SWEAT THE DETAILS
An inspiring letter can be undermined by misspellings or incorrect details. In contrast, getting everything right shows you can follow directions.
“People make mistakes in specifics,” says Dyck. “Someone applied for the advertised position in The Humphreys Group, misspelling the name of our company.” I’ve heard of cases where applicants might get the name of the job wrong, perhaps because they’re sending a generic letter to all the firms they’re approaching.
Getting the specifics correct shows you are careful with details, that you care enough to get things right, and that you will deliver polished and accurate work if you are hired. And if no person is mentioned in the job posting, find out who it might be and address your application to them. “It stands out for me when someone has taken the time to figure out who might be the one reading the application,” says Dyck.