How to Craft a Great Cover Letter
In an age of online job applications, many people think that mid-life job changers don't have to submit a cover letter with a resume because harried human-resources staff won't have time to read it.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Done right, a cover letter can hook an HR staffer or hiring manager from the opening sentence, especially the letter articulates why you're qualified for the job, what you can do for the company's bottom line or who you already know there who could vouch for your awesomeness.
"It's like building a business case for yourself," says Laura Smith-Proulx, a professional resume writer based in Denver.
But don't undo the goodwill that a snappy opening creates by going on and on, or by using boilerplate language for every open position. Today's cover letter should cover the bases and ask for follow up as succinctly as possible, and it must be individually crafted to the specific job opening, professional resume writers and other career experts say.
Here's a step-by-step guide to crafting a cover letter that will leave a hiring manager wanting to get to know you better:
1. Find a name. If you're responding to an ad that directs you to send a resume to a "Hiring Manager," do some digging to find the name of an actual supervisor for the opening. LinkedIn is a good place to start -- search for a business in the LinkedIn Companies section, then scan through the list of its employees who are LinkedIn members for the head of the department or division that listed the job opening you're seeking. If that doesn't work, call the business and ask. Once you've got a name, address your cover letter to that person. "Sending it to an actual person you'll look a lot smarter than addressing it to "To Whom It May Concern," Smith-Proulx says.
2. Stick to a formula. Keep your cover letter to between three and four paragraphs, with each paragraph composed of no more than one or two sentences. Resume writers and career coaches suggest using the first to introduce yourself and the second and third to explain your unique qualities and qualifications and why you could make the company a better or more profitable place.
3. Play up your connections. If you're applying because a friend, former work colleague or other acquaintance referred you, mention it in your opening paragraph. "Or mention how you found out about" a job, whether through a job listing, your social network or something you saw on Twitter or Facebook, says Keith Feinberg, director of permanent placement services for the New York office of staffing firm Robert Half International.
4. Spell out your value proposition. A cover letter shouldn't just rehash your resume. Explain how your experience or skills could help the company operate more efficiently, improve sales or cut costs. You'll be better able to do that if you research the company at least a little beforehand by reading articles about the business or talking to people who work there. Then fill in the dots. For example, if you're looking to get hired at a pharmaceutical company that's just started a cost-cutting initiative, you can highlight previous jobs where you've been good at helping cut costs. "So you pitch yourself as a sales manager who can help a company cut costs," Smith-Proulx says.
5. Watch your language. Adopt a conversational tone, one that's friendly, direct and engaging. Also, if you're applying for an opening you saw in a job listing, use language from the ad to describe your qualifications, says Phyllis Mufson, a long-time career coach and consultant based in Philadelphia. By including keywords or phrases that the company uses, you'll increase the likelihood that your letter (and resume) will be picked up by any applicant tracking system software that they're using, Mufson says.
6. Finish with a call to action. Close the letter by stating how you'll follow up, but play by the company's rules, as spelled out in their job ad. "If they say no calls, then don't call," Mufson says. "But if they don't say that, write that you'll give them a call or email in one to two weeks."
7. Follow up. If you promise to call in two weeks, do it (unless you hear from the company first). Not following through on a promised action could make you look bad, especially if you're applying for a sales position or other job where you need to be assertive.
8. Include a P.S. "That's a spot that will get read," says Smith-Proulx. "It could be the last one-two punch of a point you're trying to make." Read more on what Smith-Proulx says about cover letters and resumes in this post: 5 Key Steps to a Cover Letter That Opens Doors.
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