10 Tips for Great Cover Letters

Cover Letter TipsRumors of the death of the cover letter have been exaggerated. Cover letters often do make a difference – so write cover letters that have all 10 of these advantages.

1: The name of the hiring manager, if at all possible, even if you’re sending it to Human Resources. And do send it directly to the hiring manager as well! Read my posts on how to find the hiring manager’s name and how to find their email address.

2: An attention-getting opening. What do you think is the #1 most interesting or impressive thing about you, from the point of view of the employer you’re writing to? Start with that. Or figure out what their pain points are, and start by presenting yourself as the solution to their problems. Either of these approaches would be much more effective than “I am writing to express my interest in the blah blah position. My resume is attached.”

3: Your Key Selling Points. Emphasis on what you most want employers to notice – the top three to five reasons why they should hire you instead of someone else.

4:  Evidence that you are especially motivated to work for them: Do some research and mention what you discovered that makes you a good fit.

5: Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation. Even professional writers have their work proofread before publication. You can get good professional proofreading for around $5 per page.

6: Brevity. Keep it to one page or less for mailing, or one email screen (without scrolling).

7: The right format.

Email: Your cover letter should be the email itself, not an attachment. Include the job title in the subject line, plus if possible a few words emphasizing a key selling point. For example: ” MBA w/ Global Experience – Region Director Opening.” If you’re starting from a template, make your changes before pasting the content into the email. Content inserted after that point may appear to the recipient in a different font than the surrounding text.

Hardcopy: Use standard business letter format. Include a “re:” line referring to the job opening. Example: “Re: Region Director role”

8: Keywords. Cover letters often end up in the human resources department’s applicant tracking system (ATS) along with their resumes. An ATS is like a database that stores applicant information. HR personnel do keyword searches of these materials to determine whose resumes they want to read, and whose to ignore. Your cover letter and resume have more chance of being read if they contain crucial keywords such as the job title being applied for and words describing the most important skills and qualifications for the job.

9: Your phone number. Even though you phone number is presumably on the resume, include it here as well.

10: In the copy you send to the hiring manager, a promise to call him or her to introduce yourself. (Of course, this presumes you’ve got their name and a phone number, and that the job announcement did not forbid you to call.) If you’re able to do this, write something like “Because there is such a strong fit between my background and this role, I am going to take the liberty of phoning you Wednesday afternoon to personally introduce myself and answer any questions you may have.” Then be absolutely sure you make that call at the stated time, fully prepared (with notes) to effectively handle any response, whether it’s “I’m afraid I don’t have time to talk. I want to just let HR handle it,” or “I have some time. Tell me about yourself.” In a future post I’ll say more about making calls like this.

Many employers do read cover letters. Make sure yours includes all of the above so it – and you – will stand out.


Using Testimonials in Your Resume

When writing your resume, it’s one thing to claim you’re terrific at teamwork, building great client relationships, or coaching others. But where’s the evidence?

It can be especially hard to make a compelling case for “soft skills” like those above; they can be hard to quantify or certify.

Rather than just asking the employer to take your word for it, why not have someone else vouch for you?

In an increasingly review-driven world, a new trend in resumes and cover letters is to include a short quote from your manager, a customer or client, or some other credible source.

It’s most effective when the quote can be verified, perhaps because it’s online as a recommendation in your LinkedIn profile. That’s a great reason – among many – to get LinkedIn recommendations.

You can also quote from a letter of recommendation, adding in parentheses that the full letter is available upon request. A customer kudo might be another good source, probably omitting the customer’s name to maintain confidentiality.

A glowing excerpt from a performance review can be very effective, including the manager’s title but perhaps omitting their name if you feel it might be distracting or inappropriate. Include the date, if recent.

Here’s an example, this one involving a LinkedIn recommendation. Let’s say Judith Jones wants her resume to communicate above all that she’s a team player, but she knows that just saying so won’t be very convincing.

Fortunately, Judith’s LinkedIn profile contains the following recommendation from a key internal customer:

“I had the pleasure of working with Judith in two different companies over the course of eight years. Judith is a consummate Human Resources professional and would be an asset to any company that hired her. She is always open to new processes and she partnered well with Payroll. She often came to me and asked ‘How can I make this process work better for you?’ She’s an incredibly collaborative colleague. I highly recommend Judith.”

– Steven Sanchez, Director of Payroll, The Green Company

For her resume, she should shorten this to something brief and punchy, such as:

“Judith is a consummate Human Resources professional … She often came to me and asked ‘How can I make this process work better for you?’ She’s an incredibly collaborative colleague. I highly recommend Judith.”

(Steven Sanchez, Director of Payroll, Multinational Marketing, Inc., excerpted from:

(Notice we are including Steven’s name. His comment has already been made public, so he obviously has no objection to being quoted by name.)

Where would you put this in your resume? Some good spots might be:

  • At the end of the Summary. This is a very powerful location, so reserve it for strong, extremely relevant praise from your direct manager, senior management or other high-profile source.
  • At the end of the resume.
  • In the Experience section, under the job in which you received the praise.

So my advice is: Get LinkedIn recommendations and hang onto your customer kudos. They can say a lot for you!

Cover Letters Need Key Words!

Cover Letters Need Key Words!While it’s commonly known that key words are crucial in your resume, few job seekers realize that it’s also true for cover letters.

When you apply to jobs online, typically your cover letter is uploaded along with your resume and becomes part of your profile in the employer’s applicant tracking system (ATS). An ATS is basically a searchable database of job candidates. Most big corporations use them, and many mid-sized companies as well.

The employer then searches for key words and phrases related to the position, such as “marketing,” “PeopleSoft,” “human resources generalist,” “led team,” “award” and so on. This generates a ranked list of candidates based on factors such as how often the key words occur and in what context.

(That’s why listing key words doesn’t work nearly as well as using them in sentences or sentence-like bullet points.)

How do you know what the right key words are for your cover letter, resume, LinkedIn profile, etc.? Read several postings for jobs typical of your goal. Highlight or underline the words recruiters are most likely to search for, as in the example below.

(Of course, different recruiters may use different key words, so choosing these is not an exact science. Give it your best shot, and you’ll be ahead of many job seekers who don’t even try.)

Eastern Regional Sales Manager, XYZ Enterprises Inc.

Position Summary: Manage and lead the activities of independent sales reps (field reps).

Position Responsibilities: Lead field reps to promote and sell company’s manufactured brands to retail accounts. Implement all distribution and merchandising objectives including new items.

Develop programs and sales tools for field reps to increase sales within their territories.

… and so on.

List these key words, and then prioritize the list. Give extra priority to key words that:

  • appear often
  • appear in a “Summary” section at the top of the posting
  • appear in a “Requirements” section
  • appear in the job title

Of course, the job title itself is one of the most important “key words”!

Now include the most important key words in your cover letter (and resume, LinkedIn profile and other career marketing materials) – while keeping the letter short. Yes, it’s a challenge – that’s why so many people hire me to help them write these materials.

For more tips on writing cover letters, read my post Cover Letters – What’s the Point?

Be smart about cover letters and get a job faster!

Cover Letters: 5 More Reasons to Use One

In a recent post I covered a key reason for the cover letter: to show you’ve done your homework and can relate your skills to the specific company and job.

Here are five more good reasons:

  1. You can say things in a letter that might not be appropriate in your resume. For example, you can explain a career change or gap, discuss a personal interest that is highly relevant to your candidacy, or tell a success story in paragraph form rather than as an ultra-short bullet item.
  2. Communication skills are important in nearly all jobs. A letter is evidence of these skills.
  3. A letter may convey your personality better than a resume, helping the employer feel that they know you.
  4. Failing to comply with a request for a cover letter can make the employer doubt whether you’re a team player. If you failed to deliver on this requirement, they may think, what are you going to be like as an employee?
  5. If the letter is not required, then you’re “going the extra mile” by including it. This demonstrates thoroughness and motivation.

Every recruiter, HR person and hiring manager is a unique human being with his or her own opinions and habits. While some may ignore letters – especially the large number of uninteresting or poorly written letters – other employers find them very revealing. Why knock yourself out of the running with these employers?