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Killer Cover Letter Tips for Your Job Search

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Writing a cover letter for your dream job, but don’t know where to start? It’s a common problem. Many people are so intimidated by having to write a cover letter they skip it completely — which can be a mistake: It’s your first opportunity to make a stellar impression with anything but your resume, which can be dry.

Your cover letter has to be excellent to make a good impression. If you include these five elements in your letter, you’re almost guaranteed job-hunting success. Try it — play along as you read.

You need…

1. A compelling first line

Too many cover letters start with “I am pleased to submit my application for the marketing assistant job posted on your website,” which is a snooze-fest. Even “I’m excited to apply for your marketing assistant position” is about eight hundred times better because you sound like a human being.

If you want to go beyond “I’m excited to apply for…” you have a few options. Consider starting by dropping a name or with an anecdote (“If the Jell-O Wrestling Club’s latest match hadn’t ended with two injured contestants, it wouldn’t have been facing the biggest PR disaster of its short life. But now I had to fix it.”).

By the way, it’s helpful to include a name (as long as it’s spelled correctly — quadruple check this, please), but you don’t need one. “Dear hiring manager” is fine and preferable to “To whom it may concern” or “Dear sir or madam,” no matter what MS Office’s Clippy tells you.

2. A list (but not actually) of all you bring to the company

The meat of your cover letter should talk about your skills and accomplishments, but not in the same way as your resume. Your resume is a bulleted list; your cover letter should be written in sentences.

For example: “I thrive in fast-paced environments and love tight deadlines. At my previous position, I often filed reports finished long before they were due.” Or: “I’m a multitasker — I manage four social media accounts and have grown followers an average of 30 percent over each year I’ve had this job.” Or “My marketing strategy at XYZ company yielded purchase orders of over $2 million.”

Not “I have extensively researched your company and can contribute to your bottom line.” That’s meaningless.

3. A story: show it, don’t tell it

Ever since the first cavemen huddled around a fire and tried to explain the stars, human beings have been storytelling creatures. You can use your cover letter to tell the story of why you want to work at company X, how you became interested in field Y or why there’s a big gap on your resume. Nobody wants to hear your whole life story from birth onward, but consider this:

If it weren’t for my elementary school music teacher, I might never have become a writer who specializes in advocating for the arts. The only time my parents took me to Baltimore’s symphony hall, it was because they accidentally bought tickets for the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, thinking it was some sort of holiday variety show. But Mrs. Lindquist? She made sure I made it to the Meyerhoff three times each school year. I was fortunate to attend school in a well-funded district that valued music education, even if it wasn’t a high priority in my family. Not all kids are so lucky.

This is how a writer opened her cover letter to a nonprofit that brings music education to schools that don’t have it. It’s six brief sentences, but tells a full story. It’s also funny and insidery, with the references to a fairly obscure opera (for those not versed in the musical world) and the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This letter got the writer an interview.

Think how different it would have been if she had instead said, “I am applying for your open position because I am passionate about music education and want to help children experience it for themselves.” Kinda blah, right? Think about how your experiences make a story and include details.

4. Some humility

“I know I am the perfect candidate for your job.” No, you don’t. “You owe it to yourself to invite me in for an interview.” Yikes. Don’t put yourself down, but keep in mind that you’re one candidate out of many, and you definitely don’t know that you’re the best (even if you feel that way and your mom agrees).

Besides, your cover letter is an opportunity to line up your skills with the company’s needs — not to talk about how great the job would be for you. (Click here to tweet this thought.)

Some experts recommend using twice as many “you”s in your cover letter as “I”s. That’s hard to do, but it’s a good goal to aim for, since it keeps you focused on the company’s needs. Consider the differences between these two examples:

“I’m really excited about this opportunity because working with children has been a lifelong dream of mine, and your company would give me the potential to grow. This is definitely my dream job, and I know I’m the perfect candidate for you.” (Six “I”s, “me”s or “my”s, two “you”s.)

“Your ad mentions you’re looking for someone who’s good with numbers. At my last job, I was nicknamed ‘human calculator’ for my skill with reports.” (Two “you”s, two “I”s — much closer.)

5. A great closing line

Here’s what is not a great closing line: “I’ll call you next week to set up an interview.” Maybe that worked in your parents’ generation, but these days, that’s far too pushy.

Instead, try:

“I’m excited to speak with you about the opportunity to join the team!”

Or “I’m eager to help ABC Co. continue to set itself apart from the competition.”

Or even just “My resume is attached, as requested, and I look forward to speaking with you further about this job.”

Ideally, you want to straddle the line between excited (good) and Overly Attached Girlfriend (bad). Then just add a “Sincerely, your name” and you’re done. Seriously, that’s it.

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Rachel Kaufman is the author of Cover Letters for Creative People, an ebook about nailing the perfect cover letter in your job search. Get your own copy here.

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.

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