Job Hunting Summer School: Crafting Your Cover Letter
Technology is changing nearly everything about the way people job hunt in the 21st century, from social media to understanding search bots to applying for jobs online or via email. It’s also paving the way for the eventual extinction of cover letters—but they aren’t going down without a fight…
More and more, recruiters are admitting that they don’t bother reading cover letters and spend a paltry seven seconds scanning your resume. Conversely, however, as many as 83% of hiring managers and recruiters say the cover letter is still an important component of their decision-making process.
What this tells me is that while some see cover letters as disposable, others see them as indispensable, especially if a company is on the fence about hiring you. In those cases, it could be the cover letter that either sends you up the chain or weeds you out.
So how do you put yourself in the running vs. the discard pile? By crafting a cover letter that’s uniquely tailored to the job description, just like you would with your resume. A good cover letter will always highlight the parts of your career that show why you’re a perfect fit for the job, and there’s a simple formula for taking the guesswork out of what to include—no matter how diverse your list of potential positions (or your experience) might be.
Typically speaking, there are two types of cover letters: the simple and the deep dive. Here’s my recipe for how to craft and most effectively use each one.
The Simple Cover Letter
A simple cover letter is the right fit if the job you’re applying for is a straightforward, obvious fit, such as a natural progression in your career path or one where every requirement in the job description matches your resume perfectly. In other words, you don’t need to do a lot of convincing beyond your resume that you’re a strong candidate.
It comes in three parts: the opening paragraph, a bulleted list of achievements, and a closing paragraph.
The Opening Paragraph
Here, you should start by listing the position that you’d like to be considered for followed by a summary of how your experience makes you uniquely qualified for the job.
For example, if you’re applying for a position in marketing, follow up the job title name by highlighting your experience with marketing a similar product. If you’re applying for a job as a journalism professor, state up front how your dual background as a newspaper reporter and a student media mentor are the perfect blend of skills. Think of this as your version of “Here’s what I can offer you that the others can’t.”
PRO TIP: It’s not necessary to start your opening paragraph with your name. It’s already out there in plenty of other areas—the top of your resume, the signature on your cover letter, and your LinkedIn page to name a few—so it’s okay to skip the part where you state who you are. Your letter can simply begin with a salutation, “Dear [name of hiring manager or recruiter],” and then get right to the No. 1 reason you should be considered.
Three Bulleted Accomplishments
The second piece of a simple cover letter is probably the most important—a list of your three most powerful accomplishments. The first two should be directly related to the job that you’re looking to land, but the third can simply be something that you’re proud of from your work history.
Depending on how much experience you have and how successful your career has been to this point, you may have a lot of accomplishments to pick from. In order to narrow them down, think about your past experience in terms of tying a thread from your past to the positions you want in your future. Focus on the two things you’ve done that not only relate to the potential new job, but that are ideally quantifiable, high-impact, results-driven, and straight to the point of how you moved the needle in that role.
For the third bullet, highlight something you want to make sure the hiring team knows about you, regardless of where it lies in your past experience. Ultimately, hiring managers are looking for top performers, so pick an achievement that puts you in your best light.
PRO TIP: Don’t hold back because you might feel boastful. This is not about bragging, but it is about standing in your accomplishments and sharing them with pride.
The Closing Paragraph
The third piece of a simple cover letter, the closing paragraph, is where you wrap up by talking about two key strengths and how they can best serve not just the role you’d like to take on, but the company as a whole. Ask yourself what skill sets this role is really calling forward—those are what you should call out.
One example might be highlighting how your ability to successfully manage multiple projects and delegate would be a perfect fit for a supervisory role. Or, how your knowledge of how data helps inform marketing can help you deliver successful advertising creative.
And last but not least, ask for the interview and include your contact information.
PRO TIP: No matter where else your contact information might appear, always include it in the header of your cover letter and also in the closing. Make sure it’s easy to find; you don’t want to lose out on an opportunity because a recruiter can’t figure out how to reach you.
The Deep-Dive Cover Letter
The second type of cover letter—the deep dive—is for two types of people: someone with more than 10 years of experience, and someone who’s making a big career transition or pivot.
If you’ve reached the “wealth of experience” point in your career, you don’t just need more than three paragraphs to outline your qualifications—you’ve earned more. At 10 years, you’re also likely applying for management or executive-level or C-suite jobs that require a more thorough look at each candidate.
In these cases, it’s okay to delve into the details about your qualifications. Just remember to keep them relevant to the job at hand.
For the second type of job seeker, someone who’s looking for a new job that doesn’t jibe with their resume, a deep-dive cover letter can both explain why you’re looking to make the switch and to highlight how your past experience (even if it isn’t directly relevant) will transfer into a new career path. It’s like completing the picture that your resume can’t finish, or filling in the pieces of the puzzle, or rebranding yourself in a new light.
Cover Letters: The Bottom Line
It’s likely that sometime in the future, LinkedIn and other online profiles, networking, and connecting via social media will be the new normal for job hunters. And “What’s a cover letter?” will be up there with “What’s a dial tone?” on the list of questions that make us “old people” roll our eyes.
But until that day comes, cover letters still remain a part of the decision-making process for deciding who gets the gig. That said, it makes sense to always write one—even if it’s not a requirement—and use it as an opportunity to use your voice.
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