Is it worth it to write cover letters for your job applications – or when you forward your information to a networking contact?  Valid question. From almost a decade of career services experience, I can truly say that some companies read them and take them seriously and some don’t.  If you have an inside contact, maybe ask the hiring manager and recruiter preferences. I have had employers say they ignore them, and I have had employers say that the cover letter can make or break a decision to interview a candidate. My advice, write them always. Start with a generic template – once that is created, it should take you 20 minutes to customize by job. If you are tight on time, always write them for jobs you are particularly excited about. In the end, a good strategic job search does not include hundreds of job applications anyways – but that is a whole other topic.

So, with this information, how do you write a good cover letter?

  1. Remember, it is a formal business letter. Look up what that means and follow. It may be ‘old school’, but you need to include your address, date, recipient address, and etc. Google has plenty of examples. DO NOT submit a cover letter that just starts with Dear Human Resources and goes into the content without the proper heading format. It looks unprofessional. (Note, though, that I do not believe that you have to find a specific contact to put on the cover letter. If you don’t know, don’t guess and go with a general greeting.)
  2. Length – it should be one page.
  3. Include your cover letter as an attachment vs. in your email body. This makes sure your cover letter stays with your resume. Better yet, combine them into one PDF.
  4. This begs an even better question, so then what do you write in an email (unless it’s an online application)? Basically a brief summary for your cover letter. Your cover letter is a lion and your email is a kitten.
  5. Research Research Research. You should know all about the company, its strategy, what the individual department does, what are their priorities, how does the particular role fit into that. One of the best sources of this is informational interviews to get an insider perspective. Beyond this, you can actually do research from the comfort of your own home through your local public library. All libraries have different resources, but by logging into their website with your library card information, you can access a wealth of information. If it is a public company, I would suggest using the database Business Source Complete to find a valuable SWOT analysis of the company. You can also listen in on investor calls (or view transcripts) for publicly traded companies. Other really great research resources include Onesource, Capital IQ (not at libraries typically), Hoovers, ABI Inform, etc. Search articles recently written about the company. Also, look up the department employees on LinkedIn to see what their profiles have to say. I will stop here as this list is probably becoming overwhelming – but just know that there is a lot out there, and those that stick out are those that showcase their understanding of and value to the company and position.

The critical parts of a cover letter are the following:

  1. The hook
  2. The match
  3. The close

First, the hook. Some people see this as the intro paragraph, but it needs to be so much more. It needs to hook the reader into really wanting to continue reading the cover letter. Identify what you are applying for, why, and any connection you have to the company and/or role that displays your research and value to the company. Examples: talk about personal conversations you have had with employees, talk about your direct value to the type of role, mention meeting the recruiter at an event and the impact it had on you, mention 1-2 sentences of research you have done on the organization and why that makes you so excited. Caveat: don’t be cheesy (e.g. I am excited about this company as it is the biggest and best in the industry).

Second, the match. The middle paragraph should walk the reader through why you are a perfect match for the role. Consider only a few critical needs for the role, and note accomplishments from previous work that display your ability to exceed those needs. Some people choose to do this in paragraph form, and some people successfully bullet point the few key needs and a brief statement of how they solve each need. Beware of just talking generally about yourself and accomplishments. The moment the reader sees something irrelevant to what matters to them or too vague, they stop reading.

The close. Pretty simple. You thank them for their time, reiterate your excitement about the role, and reiterate how they can contact you.

Keep in mind, it is all about the value you bring to the role, not how much you want the role and *think* you can do the role.  It’s all about displaying research, understanding of the needs, and a match of those needs. Think only about the reader. What do they need to hear?  The same goes for any employment communication.  Think of yourself as a writer for The Wall Street Journal. If you write something just based on thinking inward, it might not get published or even passed along. However, if you think about the readers of the paper, the priorities of the leadership and decision makers there, and what is attention grabbing, you may just end up on the front page.

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