The ins and outs of cover letters

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How to Write a Good Cover Letter

Many people are convinced cover letters are out, but whether you need a cover letter or not depends on the job you're applying to. If you're lucky and have a contact who is willing to pass along your résumé, you probably don't need one. If a job description asks for a letter or states that it's voluntary, you'd be smart to write one.

Even though it's almost guaranteed an employer will not scrutinize your cover letter like a teacher would, it's still important. If your résumé has attracted the attention of human resources or a hiring manager, they may read your letter to get to know more about you. If they don't, the mere fact you've taken the time to write one is important. It's like the thank-you note you should always send following an interview. It shows respect and motivation. If you have qualifications that are equivalent to those of another candidate, and she did not take the time to write a cover letter, in whom do you think the employer will be more interested? That's right: you.

It's true that conservative cover letters, formatted to include only paragraphs, are out – unless you work among a select few professions, such professors or doctors. A cover letter should not be a laundry list of all the things you've done, nor should it be completely duplicative of your résumé.

Here's what's in: letters that demonstrate to the employers how you will apply the skills and accomplishments from your past work or education to their organizations. Here are some general guidelines on how to approach a cover letter:

Research. Check out the latest news bites on the company on Google and its own website. What challenges is the company facing? What opportunities is it pursuing? Do your skills fit in to one of these areas? If you cannot find such information through the news, think about the ways someone in the role you're applying to can help the organization achieve its bigger goals or avoid mistakes. This information needs to be communicated early in the letter.

Be transparent. While you don't have to state outright the personal reason for a move, be clear, and don't mislead an employer. If you have a specific date that you'll be moving, include it.

Draw connections. Don't expect the employer to do this for you. What are the most important skills the company seeks in a candidate? Take three to four that apply to you, and summarize how you have demonstrated each one. This will show that you can successfully do those same types of things at its organization.

Avoid cliches and errors. A true turnoff to employers is generically addressing the letter "Dear Hiring Manager" or "To Whom It May Concern." It takes time, but do some research to find someone in the organization to address it to. Look at the company website, and if you can't find anything there or in the news, go to LinkedIn.

Avoid using cliche phrases or character statements, such as "self-starter" or "good communicator." Instead, demonstrate those characteristics by giving examples of your current and/or previous work and how it applies to what you might do at this company.

You read that you should edit your documents all the time, yet employers constantly complain about the low-quality writing and editing in résumés and cover letters. Print your letter, and review it yourself. Have several other people review it as well. You'll thank yourself later. This small move can help you stand out from other candidates who did not pay as much attention to detail.

Make it easy. HR and hiring managers don't have a lot of time on their hands, and although they all should do this, many don't spend much time reviewing candidates' documents. That makes it all the more critical to make their job easier and save them time. Make it easy for them to contact you. Use a header on the top with your name and contact information. Provide your contact information at the end of your letter as well, so if they want to reach out to you immediately after reading it, they can. Follow up in a week to ensure your application was received.

Cover letters are not a thing of the past, but how you should write them has changed dramatically. A cover letter is not meant to be a total repeat of your résumé or a bio, but a clear picture of how you will bring value to the company based on your qualifications and past experiences. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that you are a good fit for the role and that it is worth the employer's time to invite you for an interview.

Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Marcelle holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.

Copyright 2015 U.S. News & World Report

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