Cover letters can make or break that job opportunity

Ready to Launch logoGraphic by Holly Nall

Most of us can’t get past “To Whom It May Concern” and “My name is…” when starting our cover letters, granting us less than a second glance in the application stage.

Cover letters are tricky business in the world of job applications. They provide a chance to put together everything you can’t in a résumés.

Yes, a hiring manager will be able to see your job experience and years in college on a résumé, but a cover letter is a chance to show off your soft skills, talk in detail about projects that would apply to the job and write a sentence that woos your employer.

Which is the hardest part. How do you write a cover letter that doesn’t blend into the stack?

A cover letter is your first introduction with an employer. It’s the initial display of your skills beyond the bullet points on your résumé, giving you a chance to talk about your soft skills and the experiences you’ve had that would benefit the employer.

What’s at the top of the cover letter? The name of the actual person who you’re writing to, which you need to know and get right. There are some employers who throw out résumés titled with “To Whom It May Concern.” Google any position and company to find the hiring manager’s profile. And viola! You have a name, a chance to scope out what they’ve been up to, and to show your interest in the company you wish to work for.

What’s next? The hook. That first sentence, the one that reels them in to read your entire letter. Don’t just write “My name is blah-blah, I am a blah-blah major…” Ew, boring. Having a fresh start to your cover letter is a great way to stand out. Audrey Cooper, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, has seen every kind of résumé and cover letter. “Don’t repeat your name and reiterate your entire résumé,” said Cooper. “I know some ‘how-to’ websites say this is OK. It’s not. It’s boring.”

Cooper recommends anecdotes to start your letter. “If you’re a finance major, maybe it’s a lesson you learned in your internship or a mentor who inspired you. Or maybe you grew up homeless and worked your way through college. Tell me something that will give me an idea of what you are like as an employee.”

Follow up this great hook with your background: who you are, what you’re applying for and why you’re gosh-darn perfect for it. Remember — they’re not just looking to see your experience, but to see if you can solve the problems they have. Use the body of a cover letter to snapshot your skills and expertise, and how you would apply those to the position and benefit the company. It’s all about them, and how you’ll fit right in.

Just because it’s a letter doesn’t mean you should write a 16-page love-note to the company. Outline all the points you want to hit, and go through them in the clearest and most effective way possible. Possibly one of the best tips from Forbes’ article “6 Secrets To Writing A Great Cover Letter” is that you should always send it in PDF form, nothing else. Word docs and the like can be edited and sometimes will look different on someone else’s computer; using PDF, you have complete control over the appearance of your letter.

Keeping things clear is especially important if your cover letter is sent in the email body. Nobody wants to open up a wall of email, so it’s best to keep it on the shorter side if that’s your requirement.

Overall, the best cover letter will showcase how well you’ll fit into the job, and display that you’re well informed on the company and took the time to research who’s there and what they’re up to.

“I think you can tell when someone is being authentic — when they really want to work for me,” said Cooper. “When I get cover letters from people who say they also hate clichés, I know they’ve probably read my anti-cliché Twitter rants. That tells me they’ve made extra effort, which probably means they would do the same if given a job.”

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