Five keys to a killer cover letter

Byby Penelope Trunk
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
cover leter
(Job Journal)
kgo-Job Journal

SACRAMENTO (JobJournal) -- The cover letter should be pretty straightforward. The problem is that most people think they are an exception to the rules of cover-letter writing. Most people, in fact, are not exceptions to any rule. Just statistically speaking. And your career will go much more smoothly if you stop thinking like you're a special case.

Here's a sample cover letter to give you a sense of what you're aiming for.

The basic format of a good cover letter is:

  • A three-sentence paragraph up top that summarizes your skills and experience that are explicitly related to the job in question.
  • A bulleted list of achievements that are directly related to the job.
  • A summary paragraph that says you really think you'd add to the company's bottom line (say that in a specifically relevant way) and that you'd like to set up a meeting to talk.

For cover letters, I find people are more willing to follow general formatting guidelines when they understand the reasoning behind them.

1. Don't stand out.

You do not want to stand out for the format of your cover letter. You want to stand out for your skills and experience. Good resumes follow the rules of good resumes because hiring managers want to compare apples to apples. You should follow a generally accepted format so that if you do have things that are great about you, those things stand out. If you use a totally new, creative, innovative, however-you-describe-it format, the hiring manager won't see what makes you different beyond that you don't understand how to make life easy for hiring managers.

2. Use bullets.

When people read cover letters, they are in a hiring mindset. That is, they are expecting to scan a page and get a general idea of someone. This is what the resume format is great for - leading the eye to the most information quickly. A good cover letter should be that way, too. This means you need to have a bulleted list. The cover letter is short, so include just one list - three or five bullets (the brain handles odd-numbered lists best). Once the bullets are on the page, you can bet that the recipient will read those first. Make them so strong that they get you the interview before the interviewer gets to the resume.

3. Write from the recruiter's point of view.

Address the person by name if possible. They immediately like you better. And use the name of their company. People like reading that too. Write, in the opening paragraph, what skills and experience you have that will allow you to do a great job in the position you'd like to interview for. So often, people want to tell the hiring manager ALL their experience. But hiring managers only care about the perfectly relevant experience. Also, lift words from the job description and use them in your cover letter.

4. Show that you understand the rules of the workforce.

Of course, all hotshots break rules. But you can't break rules if you don't know what they are. Breaking implies knowing. Otherwise it's not rule-breaking; it's just acting out of ignorance. A cover letter is a way to show a hiring manager you have learned the rules. Here are some tips for getting good at thinking outside the box. And, hint: None of the tips involve cover letters.

5. Don't ask too much of a cover letter.

Look, a good cover letter will not land you a job. It's just sort of the icing on the cake. So, a great cover letter for a job you'll hate is a wasted effort. Before you spend a lot of time on that cover letter, do the most important work of any job hunt: Seek out resources for how to find a job you'll love.

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