Let’s be clear up-front about this. I do not mean you should write a cover letter that makes the hiring manager or other reader leap up from his/her chair and keel over from shock! Getting employers’ attention is critical, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. In other words, it has to generate the type of response you need—most importantly, a phone call that can lead to an interview. Always, always keep that goal in mind when writing and sending cover letters to potential employers.
What Works in Cover Letters and What Doesn’t
What works? Maybe there’s no magic bullet you can shoot and hit the target with your cover letter every time, but much of what works comes from what ought to be common sense (but isn’t as common as it should be). Here are just a few cover letter tips to consider:
- Focus on the company. It’s not all about you. Yes, you’re the one sending the letter and hoping to land a job interview; but it’s the employer who will be reading the letter and looking for potential value for his/her company. Unless you engage what I call the “enlightened self-interest” of the employer, your submission can quickly become history—without ever gaining an interview.
- Go beyond the generic, feel-good-but-insubstantial approach. If the cover letter sounds like a blanket approach to your job search (something you are probably sending to multiple companies), it will almost certainly go unread. Cover letters are the perfect opportunity to customize your submissions and help you “come alive” to employers; don’t waste that opportunity!
- Pair genuine enthusiasm with knowledge about the company and what it does. It’s important for the company to know you really want to work for it (avoiding the “I just want a job, any job” mentality). In order to write an effective cover letter, you have to know and be able to communicate why you particularly want to work for that company—and why they should care.
What doesn’t work? In a way, it’s kind of the flip side of the tips mentioned above, but other issues can hurt your chances as well.
- A long-winded, essentially boring cover letter can easily torpedo your chances. Busy hiring managers or HR staffers most likely won’t even bother to look at it. If you were in their place, you probably wouldn’t either!
- Straight repetition of information from your resume doesn’t lead to a strong cover letter. It’s not that you can never reference items from the resume, but it needs to be done in a way that clearly adds value—makes points for you in the reader’s mind.
- Some people don’t read cover letters. Period. You’re not going to know that ahead of time, though, so don’t make the assumption that your letter won’t get read and decide (a) not to bother with a cover letter at all or (b) throw together something quickly, just to get the resume out the door. Give the letter your best shot; otherwise, you might as well forget it. If you can’t create a compelling cover letter, you can pretty much count on having it ignored.
If a company requests a cover letter, you should definitely send one—and make it a great one! But even if they don’t ask, you can still send the letter. For any job you’re strongly interested in, the cover letter represents one more chance for you to get the kind of attention you’re after. Take advantage of that opportunity!