Many job seekers wonder if a cover letter is necessary since not all hiring managers require one. However, because you can never know which hiring managers want one and which ones don’t, you should err on the side of caution and include it. Furthermore, if you are going to include a cover letter, you should make sure it’s one that will make a great first impression.
Writing a great cover letter might be easier said than done, but this article will provide you with many helpful strategies to write the best one you can. Of course, it is very important that the letter be written with perfect spelling and grammar. Additionally, it should be concise and limited to one page. Read on for more helpful tips:
Open and Close Strong
The first paragraph of your cover letter is important for many reasons. First and foremost, you need to directly state your reason for writing the letter. If you are applying to a specific job opening, you should include the job title and source within the first paragraph. For example:
“Good day. I am writing to you to demonstrate my interest in your job opening of (Job Title) that was listed on Indeed.com.”
In most cases, this type of introduction is sufficient. However, if you are submitting your resume through a referral or for an “unadvertised” job opening, you will need to alter your opening. Consider the following:
“Good day. I am writing to you today because our mutual acquittance John Doe suggested you may have some need of someone with my skills and expertise.”
“As an award-winning Sales Representative, I offer a track record of achievements in creating winning presentations, negotiating and closing win-win contracts, and providing comprehensive customer service while generating millions of dollars in new revenue.”
With this accomplished, you should also begin to build your case for why you are a candidate worth considering. To do so, highlight several of your strengths and capabilities in general terms within the opening paragraph. The paragraph should be only a few sentences in length (three or four should suffice), but should convey your value clearly and concisely to the reader.
When you get to the close of the cover letter, you should be sure to include what resume writers and coaches refer to as a “call to action.” Basically, you want to cue the reader to “take an action.” Hopefully, in this case that will be to call and schedule an interview with you. You can make this request with the following wording:
“I am confident that I will prove beneficial to your organization and therefore I am submitting my resume for your review. I would like to schedule a personal meeting with you to discuss your goals for this position and how I can help you achieve them.”
Highlight Achievements in Your Cover Letter
Much like your resume needs to be an achievement-driven document, your cover letter should include accomplishments as well. You can include these achievements in bulleted format or through paragraph descriptions. If you use bullets in your cover letter, list them between your opening and closing sections of the letter. You should select three or four bullets from your resume which are different than the ones you use in a “select career highlights” section. These bullets should include quantifiable measures of business impact when possible.
If you decide to use a paragraph format for your cover letter, you still need to include achievements, but you can present them with a more detailed, “story-telling” approach. I would recommend that you limit the “body” of your cover letter to no more than three paragraphs and tell a specific story in each of them. For example, you can use one paragraph to talk about a cost saving achievement, another to detail out a project that allowed your company to expand production, and a third to explain a training program that you developed and implemented. Just remember that when using the paragraph format, you need to detail the problem you were addressing, the various steps you took to solve that problem, and the end results.
Use the Cover Letter to Explain Things You Can’t in the Resume
There is a long list of things that job seekers want to address in their resumes that should be saved for a cover letter or an interview. They often want to try to explain job gaps or talk about a career change or state that they are willing to relocate. Simply put, the resume is just not the place for that type of content. In fact, there are even some things best saved for the interview process (such as salary discussions). However, the cover letter can be used to address some of these things and this section seeks to best explain how.
The cover letter is the best place to address a career change. First, let me state that a “career change” isn’t when you are seeking a promotion or making a lateral move – say from marketing to public relations. The kind of “career change” that needs to be addressed in a cover letter is when you have years of experience as an engineer, but go back to school and decide to become a psychologist. When a career change is that comprehensive, giving some personal reasons for why you made the decision can help the reader understand that you are dedicated to your new profession. Additionally, if you can make connections from your old profession to your new one and highlight transferable skills, you can convince the reader that your prior experience makes you a strong candidate for the role you are seeking. In cases such as these, you should use a paragraph format for your letter so you can go into a little more detail. Just remember that the letter should still be limited to one page.
Many people who are open to relocation remove their address from their resume and cover letter so that they aren’t ruled out of consideration because they don’t live locally. Most hiring managers don’t pay too much attention to this because they expect you to be able to relocate if you are applying to the job opening. However, if you are planning to relocate to a specific area already and want the hiring manager to know that moving expenses will not be an issue, you can feel free to point that out in your cover letter. Simply state the reason for your move and when you plan on it being complete. For example:
“I am applying for your opening because my spouse recently accepted a position in Dallas and we will be relocated there next month.”
Even if true, try not to include information that might make the hiring manager think you will be distracted from doing your job. For example, do not tell the reader that you are moving to take care of an ailing parent. If you don’t have a “matter of fact” or “positive” reason for your move, you can just say that you will be “moving to Dallas next month and will be prepared to start work within six weeks.”
If you feel it is necessary, you can address a career gap in a cover letter. It is often best to cover this during the interview process if the hiring manager asks about it. However, if you feel the gap is wide enough to prevent you from receiving an invitation for an interview, go ahead and address it in the cover letter. When deciding if you need to cover a career gap, first remember that you only need to go into about 10 or 15 years of experience on your resume. Therefore, if you can provide 10 years of experience, you probably don’t need to address this issue at all. Even a gap of a year might go unnoticed in recent work history (particularly if there is a page break between the jobs that have the gap). As a result, the people who need to explain a “gap” the most are likely people who are missing recent career history, going back more than one or two years.
If you have simply been searching for a job for 18 months, you can probably get by without providing an explanation in your cover letter. On the other hand, if you have been unemployed for two or three years, it might not be a bad idea to address the reason why in your cover letter. Just remember that your explanation needs to be as positive as possible and not give the hiring manager a reason to overlook you as a candidate. Consider:
Positive reasons for taking time off work: Taking care of young children, caring for an ailing parent, investing in real estate projects (though this can be listed as work on your resume), furthering your education, or enjoying early retirement (early is an important word here because if you bring up retirement it could age you in the reader’s mind).
Negative reasons for taking time off work: Anything criminal in nature, retirement in general (even if you retired from the military at 45, the reader could still see that word and think 70), taking time off to travel (this might be enriching, but it implies you don’t really need the job), or anything else that makes it appear that you wouldn’t give the job your full effort.
Just remember that when you present your reasons for taking time off, that you state them as being “resolved.” That way the hiring manager knows that you are ready to return to work and take on all the requirements that would be placed on your shoulders if hired. Consider these examples:
“After taking time off while my children were young, I’m looking forward to returning to work full-time now that they are school age. In order to keep my skills up while I was off, I stayed active in the National Association of Marketers and completed several of their professional development courses.”
“When my mother took ill and we had her move in with us, I had to reduce my workload and dedicate myself full-time to my family. She has since passed on and I have closed all issues dealing with her estate. I am now ready to take on a professional challenge and find myself very interested in your job opening.”
“When I was 20 years old, I had to leave school and help support my family. Even though I had been highly successful in my career, I have always been interested in going back and completing my degree. When my last employer offered me a generous severance package due to their closure in Dallas and relocation, I decided to take that opportunity to finish my Bachelor’s in Finance and went on to complete my MBA. I now believe I have all the requisite tools (formal training and hands-on experience) to advance into executive leadership.”
In each example, the writer is demonstrating to the reader why their job gap does not disqualify them from consideration. Should you be unsure whether you have accomplished this with your letter, ask others for their opinion.
Other Content Guides
If you find it necessary, you can address certain aspects of the job ad in your cover letter that probably shouldn’t be listed on your resume. For example, if the job ad states that the job requires 50% travel, you can state that you enjoy traveling as part of your work.
Research & Personalize the Letter
The best advice on cover letter writing will tell you to research the company and personalize your letter in some way. You might not have the time to do this for every position you apply to, but when you can, it could be the extra touch that earns you an interview.
You can look on the company’s website, google the company, or just read the job ad in detail to get an idea about the work you would be doing if hired. When you do so, just add a line about how you are particularly interested in some aspects of the job (penetrating new markets), the company’s brand (their reputation for contributing to the community), or the corporate value/mission they list on their website.
Just remember that whatever you bring up in your cover letter could come up in the interview, so don’t do this haphazardly. Be prepared to follow up on this subject-matter when talking to the hiring manager.
Words of Caution
There is one area where I would suggest you not try to use a cover letter to provide an explanation, and that is to justify why you lack the education requirements a job ad states the company wants. You might have a perfectly good reason why you never completed your Bachelor’s degree, but the time to address that issue is in an interview. You will need to be prepared to answer the question if the hiring manager asks you, but it is too easy to disqualify yourself by offering any explanation on this issue in your cover letter. If your resume is strong enough to earn you a phone call, address this issue later.
NOTE: Never lie to cover the education question. Even if the job ad doesn’t state it, most companies will consider your work experience and accomplishments as equivalent to education.
The other issue I would caution you about addressing in a cover letter is salary. If a job ad asks you to provide your salary requirements in a cover letter, always provide a range (between $45K and $52K per year). Make sure that range covers what you need to pay your bills, but also matches your expectations for the job in your area (websites such as salary.com can provide you this information). Just remember that getting too specific on this subject could hinder you in a couple of ways. First, you could eliminate yourself from consideration if your salary target is too high. Second, if you are offered the job, you could limit your salary negotiation options to the figure you stated in your cover letter.
NOTE: If the employer does not ask you for this information, do not address it at all until the interview process.
A cover letter works hand-in-hand with a resume, so you should demonstrate as much consistency between them as possible. If you are printing them or sending documents as attachments, make sure they are visually similar. You should use the same font style and size, headers, line spacing, and margins for both documents. Additionally, you should make sure your name and contact information appear the same on both documents and that you use the same title for your resume and cover letter.
by Kimberly Sarmiento
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The following articles offer more cover letter tips on specific aspects of cover letter writing:
- 10 Tips for Writing a Good Cover Letter
- Tips for New Graduates on How to Write an Engaging Cover Letter
- 5 Ways to Get Your Cover Letter Noticed
- 5 Tips for Cover Letter Success
- 25 Golden Rules for Effective Cover Letter Writing
- Cover Letter Structure for New Graduates