If you haven’t written a cover letter in 10 years, and don’t know how dramatically they’ve changed, you might as well pick up a stone tablet to compose your next one. In the age of applicant tracking software and emailed job applications, everything about effective cover letters is different—from tone and content, to purpose and relevance.
The rise of job boards and online application systems has made cover letters an unreliable self-marketing tool—at least online. If the computer tosses out your resume, your uploaded letter gets trashed too. Even if your resume makes it through the screening, the person reading it may not bother with the cover letter. It’s a secondary document at this point, not the grabber it’s supposed to be. “With online systems, cover letters sometimes get read, and sometimes not,” says Lindsay Barbarino, Team Lead of Resume Services for RiseSmart, an outplacement service in San Jose, California. “But cover letters are pretty effective in the cases they are read. They can tip the scales.”
While uploaded cover letters are often overlooked, ones sent as email are almost always read. “Body copy is the new cover letter; that’s your first impression,” says Chris Lawson, chief executive of Eli Daniel Group, a boutique recruitment firm in Allen, Texas. If you’re able to apply directly to a hiring manager via email, your cover letter will be your greatest ally in landing you an interview.
Here are five rules for crafting an effective cover letter—and getting it read.
Forget about you; learn about them. Your resume lists your experience, accomplishments and skills; your cover letter should show how they are relevant to a particular job, and to the company’s goals. Before you write a word, research the company and the industry so you can make informed references in your cover letter. “Look at the company’s website—what are they actually doing in the marketplace? Get to know who their competition is,” suggests Lakewood, Colorado career coach Donna Shannon, author of Get a Job Without Going Crazy: A Practical Guide to Your Employment Search. Shannon recommends looking at ZoomInfo and Manta for company information, Glassdoor for insight into hiring trends, and LinkedIn for information on the hiring manager and other company employees.
Put the company’s needs first. Effective cover letters should be brief—around three paragraphs—so you need to show what you know about the company’s business ASAP. “The first couple of lines have to give the impression that you know the job you’re applying for, and why you are applying for it,” says Lawson. Don’t open with “I’m interested in a applying for the position of…” or “I’m seeking a position with high growth potential.” Nobody cares about your interests. Instead, say something like, “Your need for a team leader who understands finance is perfectly timed for my decision to leave my current employment,” suggests Shel Horowitz, a marketing consultant and cover-letter/resume writer in Hadley, Massachusetts. “What you can offer them comes before what you want,” he says. “You’re marketing your ability to help them.” Refer to facts you’ve learned from your research: say, the company’s push into Asian markets, its upcoming merger, or recent account acquisitions.
Watch your language. Applicant tracking software looks for keywords in resumes and cover letters that literally match the job description listed by the employer. So your uploaded letter needs to include as many of those words as possible. “Use the exact language they use,” says Horowitz. The software identifies exact matches and near-matches, but the more direct hits, the better. When applying directly to hiring managers, however, you can’t parrot back their exact words, says Horowitz: “If it’s a person, give them a rewrite of what they want—same points, different language—in a way that respects their intelligence.”
Don’t worry if you’re not Hemingway. Effective cover letters require clarity, not creativity. They’re not a test of your narrative skills; you can even use bullet points to get your points across, according to Lawson. If you show that you’ve done your homework, understand the job, and have the particular skills to fit the employer’s particular needs, you’ve written a good letter. Having a voice and showing some personality is fine, as long as it doesn’t obscure what you’re really trying to communicate: How you can help the company.
Know the nuts and bolts. Cover letters have become less formal and more personal, perhaps because they’re delivered through email or online. Here’s what to say in a cover letter, and how to say it:
- Subject field: the job title.
- Salutation: “Dear Hiring Manager,” or if you have an exact name, “Dear Mr./Ms. Whatever.”
- First paragraph: match up what you know about the company’s needs with your skills, strengths and experience. State what you can do to help.
- Middle paragraph(s): explain anything on your resume that may raise questions—why you left your previous job in less than a year, or why you’re looking to switch careers. You can also offer more specific examples of how your experience fits perfectly with their requirements. “Include an anecdote that portrays you as a problem solver,” suggests Horowitz. “Then add: ‘I’d be happy to elaborate on this in an interview.’ Remember, however, that it’s about them, not you, so beware of overselling yourself. “Don’t go too over the top with the details; you don’t want to over-focus on any one minute detail,” says Shannon.
- Last paragraph: state how to reach you: email address, phone number, the best time to call. If you think that money may be a deal breaker, you can give salary requirement to save everyone the time and hassle of finding out later.
- Sign off: “Look forward to hearing from you.”
Follow instructions exactly for an effective cover letter. If the application directions say to upload a cover letter, do it—even if you plan to send it in the body of an email as well. Ignoring the cover letter rules is the quickest way for you, and your cover letter, to get bounced.
See also: “What makes a resume memorable?”