Kate Lorenz, CareerBuilder.com Editor
Like peanut butter and jelly or bacon and eggs, résumés and cover letters go hand-in-hand. Although both pieces are valuable on their own, they pack the most punch when served together. But while all job seekers know the importance of a well-organized résumé, many don’t understand the power of a strong cover letter.
In addition to reinforcing key skills and experience, a cover letter demonstrates your desire to work for the employer and the specific ways in which your expertise can benefit the firm. More importantly, it helps differentiate you from other job seekers and provides incentive to contact you for an interview.
Even if composition isn’t your forte, you can still create a killer cover letter. Here’s how:
1. Know your stuff.
Before you begin writing, learn as much as you can about the potential employer. Visit the firm’s Web site and scan industry publications to familiarize yourself with recent news about the company, such as quarterly earnings, and to learn about future plans, like expansion into new markets. The more you know about an organization, the better you can tailor your cover letter to the firm’s needs.
2. Personalize it.
Never begin a cover letter with “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom it May Concern.” Correspondence with generic salutations often signal to potential employers that you lack the initiative to locate the appropriate contact. If a job listing does not include the name of the hiring manager, call the company’s receptionist and explain the position you are applying for to see if he or she can help you fill in the blank.
3. Start strong.
A good cover letter begins with a powerful opening paragraph. Your goal is to briefly describe how you heard about the position and why you’re interested in it. Skip cute introductions: “Teamwork is my middle name” or “I am smart as a whip,” for example. A “catchy” opening can appear stilted and insincere and offers little, if any, value to the piece.
4. Offer an enticement.
The body of the letter should expand upon — not simply repeat — the key points in your résumé. Highlight those skills and experiences most relevant to the job opening and provide concrete examples of how you can benefit the company. For example, if you are applying for a management position, share how turnover within your department decreased by 20 percent during your tenure. Or communicate how your attention to detail and ability to adapt quickly to new environments allow you to deliver first-rate client service.
5. Be bold.
In addition to expressing gratitude for the hiring manager’s time and interest, close your letter by outlining your next steps. Be proactive by stating when you will contact him or her to follow up. Doing so is a great way to reinforce your enthusiasm for the job. However, don’t forget to include a phone number or e-mail address where you can be reached in case the firm wants to get in touch with you first.
In addition to following best practices, you’ll want to avoid common pitfalls when composing your cover letter:
6. Getting ahead of yourself.
Focusing on matters such as expected salary and title can come across as presumptuous and untimely. Wait until you have secured a meeting and become better acquainted with the hiring manager to mention these topics.
7. Goofing the proof.
Our company’s research consistently shows that one or two typographical errors are enough to discourage a hiring manager from calling you back. Utilize your computer’s spell-check function, but also ask friends and family to double-check your work. You don’t want a small mistake to call your professionalism or attention to detail into question.
8. Forgetting the format.
If you submit your application via e-mail, make sure to prepare the file as a plain text document so it is universally compatible. Remove all formatting enhancements, such as underline or boldface, and replace bullets with asterisks or dashes. If you fail to do so, your recipient may receive a bowl of alphabet soup. Also, paste the cover letter into the body of an e-mail to save hiring managers the worry of corrupt or unreadable attachments.
Some job seekers spend hours assembling a résumé and only a short amount of time on the accompanying note. Submitting a thoughtful and well-written cover letter, however, can help you outshine your competition and get you one step closer to an interview.