What You Need to Know About Cover Letters

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Work overload
By Hannah Morgan

Do you agonize over what to say in a cover letter, or do you simply change the contact information and hit "send"? Do you need to send one at all?

The reality is that everyone receiving applications has a different method and opinion of cover letters, and that impacts when and if your letter gets read. So what approach do you take? Stick with these tips:> Find a job as data science
> Find a job in human resources
> Find a job in banking
> Find a job in retail
> Find a job in administration

Always follow directions. Read the job posting thoroughly, and follow the directions. If the company requires you send a cover letter, then do so. If a cover letter is optional, you should still include one. This shows you are willing to take the extra steps and may make a difference.

Customize the letter. One cover letter template won't fit the needs of every job you apply to. You don't want to send the same letter to every job you apply to. Employers can tell, and it makes you look lazy.

Here are five ways to customize your cover letter and improve your chances of it getting read:

Remember that "to whom it may concern" is so passe. Not only does addressing a letter this way look old, but it also sends the message that you don't care enough to look up the person's name. Address the letter to the person who does the hiring. In most cases, this will be a hiring manager, not human resources, unless you are applying for a job in HR. If you've read the description carefully, there may actually be a contact name listed. If not, the posting may indicate who the job reports to, such as the senior project manager within a named group.

Go to LinkedIn, and search for that job title and department. Or use a search engine, and enter the job title and department information in the job posting. If you've done your due diligence and can't find the name, use the job title one level above. If nothing is available, which is highly unlikely, then – and only then – you can use a generic addressee, like "Hiring Manager."

Make your first sentence stand out. Too often, cover letters are sleep-inducing. Don't start you cover letter like everyone else by stating something like, "attached you will find my résumé for your Project Manager job."

Instead, lead with a quote from a performance review or recommendation that highlights some of your relevant skills or your work ethic. Perhaps you could begin with your value proposition (the problem you solve, who benefits and how you do it uniquely). Even dropping the name of an employee you know in your opening sentence can capture the attention of a reviewer.

Why exactly do you want to work at this company? One question every employer wants you to answer is "why us?" Explain in a sentence or two why you want to work at that company. Research the company, look at press releases and learn about some of its projects or clients. Do your best to specifically explain why you would be a good fit in the company.

The middle is the meat. The second paragraph of your cover letter explains how your skills match what the company is looking for. Focus on the specific processes, procedures or work-related skills, rather than the soft skills. Communication, leadership, time management and initiative are important, but you have to be able to perform the job successfully. Be sure you explain the technical or work-related skills.

Close your letter. The last paragraph thanks the readers for their time and consideration, reiterates your interest in the company and role and states your next steps.

Set the expectation that you will follow up. Too often, candidates' applications are misplaced or not received. The only way to know for sure that the company received your materials is if you contact the HR team or someone else in the company to verify your application was received. Is this type of follow up really necessary? If you are interested in the job, yes.

Looking for a totally different approach?

Liz Ryan, CEO of Human Workplace and an HR veteran, recommends using what she calls a "pain letter" in a 2014 Forbes article. This empowering approach requires research and knowledge about the company to whom you are applying, but the results make it all worthwhile. "Pain Letter users tell us that their Pain Letters result in callbacks about twenty-five percent of the time," she writes in the article. Here is a summary of the four paragraphs of a Pain Letter:
  • The hook: Congratulate the company on something specific from a press release or news article.
  • The Pain Hypothesis: Make an educated guess about what the pain points are for the company. It could be rapid growth, a new client, a merger or layoff – just to name a few.
  • The Dragon-Slaying Story: Share a short example of how you've overcome a similar pain point.
  • The Closing: Conclude the letter by inviting a conversation if there is interest.
When you do send a cover letter, either a classic format or a Pain letter, put in the effort to make it stand out.

Hannah Morgan writes and speaks on career topics and job search trends on her blog Career Sherpa. She co-authored "Social Networking for Business Success," and has developed and delivered programs to help job seekers understand how to look for work better.
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