You’ve been looking for a job for months. It feels like years have gone by with no luck. Your resume is strong, and you have the skills you need, but for some reason you aren’t getting the interviews or call backs you deserve.
Could it be, might it be, is it perhaps... your cover letter?
Well, if it is, you certainly aren’t alone: 48% of hiring managers will toss a cover letter that’s not customized, and 49%, will toss out a cover letter with spelling errors. That’s a lot. But, the thing is, you don’t have to be one of them. You’re more than just a statistic, right?
Why is a cover letter so important, you ask? Well, a cover letter is the meat of your experiences and expertise. It’s everything you didn’t (and shouldn’t) have the space to put on your resume.
Here’s an example: If a company is wavering on your application, they read your cover letter as an effort to get more background on you – they want to know more. They want to know not only what you’ve done and where you’ve worked in the past, but how that experience is going to help you, and them, if they give you the job.
It could also mean that they’re passing your resume up the chain, and want to learn more about you before they decide to give you the green light. That is, probably, the best-case scenario. Or maybe they have a pile of resumes they’re looking at and need a way to trim the herd – this is when they’ll read a select few cover letters to find glaring errors that knock candidates out of the race.
Don’t lose hope – and don’t get overwhelmed. It's important to know which cover letter errors might keep you from the job, and that’s exactly what we’re here to help you with. Here, we'll identify a few things to consider when writing your cover letter and offer a few tips and tricks to make sure yours is the strongest one in the stack.
- Keep it short
Long-winded resumes typically end up in the trash. You can be sure that whoever is reading it over has more than a few others to read, and no hiring manager has the time to waste “getting to the good part,” as they say.
Three paragraphs is an ideal length.
The first paragraph is your introduction, the second paragraph offers the bulk of who you are and your accomplishments (and, most importantly, what you can and will do for the company), and the third wraps up with your conclusion. The hiring manager giving a first read to your letter is probably going to spend 10 seconds or less on it. They will want to see something succinct and to-the-point.
- Have a great hook
Similarly, whoever is reading your resume is going to want to know right away whether or not you have the potential to be a good fit.
Pro tip: Be aware of how many times you start a sentence, or paragraph, with “I”. If every paragraph starts with it, you might seem not only a little narcissistic, but rather uncreative as well. It is about you, of course: you’re selling yourself, after all. But, at the end of the day, it’s more about them.
- Don’t repeat yourself
Your cover letter is not your resume. Your resume is the place to list your accomplishments, etc. one by one. It can by dry – more like data than who you really are.
The cover letter, on the other hand, is designed to show why you’re interested in that particular job and company, and why you’re the right fit for the role. That means it shouldn't be an itemized list of your every job and achievement. You can, of course, expand on the achievements you didn't have the room to include on your resume, e.g. if you received an award, or were a part of an incredibly successful project. But no one wants to see a repeat of your resume simply written out in a longer form.
- Don't ignore the job description
Read the job description closely and carefully to identify the top two or three qualities the company is looking for in an employee - the things they mention the most.
Use your cover letter to demonstrate that you have the specific skills the company is looking for.
Give examples of when and how you demonstrated those skills, and that you’re the perfect fit for the position they're looking to fill.
- Quantify your skills
It's nice for a potential employer to read that you’re “experienced in social media.” Much more effective? To read that you you have led a successful social media campaign that generated 2 million followers, increasing revenue by 15% for your past employer. Present yourself as someone with proven results under your belt, and illustrate how you will use those past successes to help your new company succeed as well.
- Know who you’re writing to
Want to appear lazy and lackadaisical? Start your cover letter with "To Whom It May Concern."
Before the internet became the ubiquitous job-hunting tool it is today, you may have gotten a pass for using something so informal. But when a quick Google search or phone call will tell you the name of the hiring manager, there is no excuse for leaving your first line impersonal. Addressing your letter to the correct person (and spelling their name right) gives the hiring manager an instant connection, and also shows that you're resourceful enough to learn about the company for which you'd like to work.
It's also important to know the culture and personality of the company as a whole: You might be applying for a job at a Fortune 500 company, a startup, or anything in between, and it's important to have the right tone when addressing them. If it's a more casual office setting, your letter can reflect that with an easygoing side of your personality. On the other hand, if the company seems to have a formal culture, it's probably best to use traditional phrases like "Dear Mr./Ms." and straightforward prose.
No two companies are alike, not just in mission but also in culture.
- And don’t forget to edit
This may seem obvious – and it is – but you might be surprised by how many people send out cover letters with one-off spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, poor form and function and poorly-used language.
Nothing will land your resume/cover letter in the trash quicker than something that hasn’t been edited.
It’s always best to have someone look it over before you send it out – someone you trust that can catch any of the aforementioned mistakes, as well as give you tips on how to make the letter read better and impress a potential employer. You can, and should, trust your own instincts, but it’s never a bad idea to have a second, or even third in some cases, person offer a new perspective and potentially catch things you might have missed.
Simple? Maybe not. But hopefully we’ve given you enough information to get you started, and feel confident that you've written your cover letter in a way that's sure to land you the job of your dreams.