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Crack the Cover Letter Code in 7 Easy Steps

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If you think cover letters aren’t important, you’re wrong. They are often a key factor in who gets an interview and who doesn’t.

For the most competitive job openings, your application packet may be in a stack with of hundreds of well-qualified individuals vying for the same position. While hiring managers may use your resume to narrow that stack down, the cover letter will be a deciding factor in whether you make it into the “interview” pile.

So how do you write the cover letter that gets your resume to the final cut? Here are seven easy steps that will increase your chances by an order of magnitude.

1. Personalize it

Figure out the name of the person who will review the resume. If it’s not on the job announcement, the name of the HR director may be on the company website. If the company is small and doesn’t have an HR department, the hiring manager may be the direct supervisor for the position — so find out who that person is and address your cover letter to them directly. This doesn’t work for all openings, but when I see in a stack of 300 cover letters that half of the applicants took the time to find out my name, the other half look lazy by comparison.

2. It’s not you it’s them

Don’t spend too much time talking about what the company can do for you — talk about what you can do for the company. Your opening pitch should focus on how you can help the company achieve their goals or mission better, faster, or more efficiently than all the other applicants. The hiring manager’s first concern is not how this particular job will help your own career goals. Save that for the interview (and only if they ask).

3. Name dropping is good

If you have any connection to the company, the cover letter is the place to mention it. Mention a study or report that you read authored by the company president that inspired you to enter the field. Or, mention the industry tradeshow where the CEO spoke and you were able to learn a valuable lesson from his speech. Or, mention that you’ve been a user of their product or service. Whatever it is, it should be true, and also provide a demonstrated interest in their company and the products or services they offer. If you can’t figure out a way to do this, you might want to reevaluate whether the company is a good fit for your career goals.

4. Keep it concise

There’s no reason why your cover letter should be longer than about one page. If it’s one an half, that’s fine. But if you find yourself shrinking your font smaller than 12pt and expanding your margins to fit onto two pages, your cover letter is way too long. For competitive positions, hiring managers will just not have time to read them. Which leads me to my next point.

5. Use bullet points — carefully

As someone who has spent hours evaluating hundreds of application packets in a single sitting, I have developed a new appreciation bullet points. Used strategically in a cover letter they can highlight your key selling points to the recruiter and move you quickly to the “interview” pile. An effective way to use bullet points would be to highlight your strongest assets you can provide the company. Used poorly, however, they can draw attention to the wrong information. Don’t use bullet points, for instance, to repeat information on your resume, or to list books you’ve read (sadly, I have seen this done). Think carefully about the information you are highlighting with bullets because they will draw the reader’s immediate attention.

6. Tell them what they want to hear

Take a very close look at the job description for the open position and try to use the same language they do when you write your cover letter. For example, if they say they want a ‘results-driven sales executive’ repeat that phrase back to them in your cover letter if it fits in to how you’re pitching yourself. If they list 10 key skills that are essential to the job, pick out three or four where you excel and make sure your cover letter addresses examples of those key qualities that the employer thinks are important.

7. Spell Check. Again.

Finally, don’t forget to double and triple check your cover letter for spelling errors and typos. Have a friend look it over for good measure. There’s nothing more embarrassing than realizing in the rush to send out 10 new job applications that you forgot to change the name of the company or the title of the job to which you’re applying.

Have you been a hiring manager responsible for reviewing hundreds of applications? What role does the cover letter play in your reviewing process? We’d love to hear your tips and recommendations for job seekers in our comments section!

Whitney Parker is Brazen Careerist’s vice president of user experience/design. She specializes in helping nonprofits, small businesses, individuals and start-up organizations achieve greater recognition for their causes and products in the digital world. Follow her on Twitter.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/mrpatrickgallagher Patrick

    Generally speaking cover letters we receive are poorly written, not targeted and so when an applicant sends in their information the cover letter is skipped. Therefore with a Fortune 500 company like ours I would say it’s a waste of your time and effort.

    I prefer to write them myself, but not for large companies that employ over 100K people! Time is a key factor in that policy. (The views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Dell Inc.)

  • http://emily-jane.net Emily

    Great tips. I cannot stress the importance of the cover letter enough, especially when I see hundreds of resumes that don’t appear even slightly related to the position being applied for. The cover letter is a great chance to explain how someone’s skills and experiences, not necessarily in a formal job setting (on resume), will translate to the position, and provides a good example of their communication skills in the process. Plus, resumes with cover letters (especially ones who’ve taken the time to address it personally to someone vs. “resume spew”) show that they made that much more effort than the majority of applicants. Definitely worth the time investment!