If I have learned one thing in my role as a career development professional, it is that no one likes writing cover letters. And as someone who has had to read quite a few, I must admit, it is often hard to read them as well.
With tons of recommended templates available online, it is easy to see why writing and reviewing cover letters is a struggle. No need to despair, though -- if you want to draft an effective cover letter, consider the following five tips.
1. Address A Specific Person
Most cover letters that come my way begin with one of the following: “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.” When interviewers see those greetings, their desire to toss the cover letter increases. Show your resourcefulness and genuine interest in the job by digging deeper and finding the appropriate person who will be reviewing your cover letter and making the hiring decision.
The above may be easier to do when applying for positions in smaller organizations with fewer employees. If applying for a position in a large institution, identify the head of the department or team you would be working with if hired. The organizational structure can often be found on the company website.
2. Tell A Story
As you begin working on your cover letter, keep in mind that interviewers look at hundreds of letters. You want to grab their attention and then keep it. To achieve that, focus on telling stories and avoid repeating what your resume already says by copying and pasting your bullets in the cover letter. Liz Matthews, associate director of employer relations at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, points out that a strong cover letter needs to tell a story that indicates “why the candidate is well qualified for the position, what makes them unique and why they are a good fit for the company.” Stories make your cover letter specific and engaging. Focus on results you accomplished and on lessons learned rather than simply listing the tasks you completed and the skills you used.
3. Make It Relevant to the Job
A mistake many job seekers make is emphasizing how valuable the position is to them. Employers already know you will benefit from the position. What they are interested in is the value you will bring to them. As you tell the story of your motivation to work for the company and the skills you will bring, make sure you are addressing the employer’s needs.
To find those needs, carefully review the job description and try to visualize the candidate the company is looking for, both in terms of skills and personality. Do you see yourself as that person? What examples can you share that can show them you are that person? As Kelli Rowedder, assistant director and instructor in the English Language Program at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School succinctly puts it, “No funny business.” In a cover letter, she likes to see examples of the relevant job experience the candidate has so that she has a better idea of how the candidate will address the needs of her department.
4. Keep It to One Page
You want to keep your cover letter to one page. Interviewers are busy, often reviewing multiple applications, and they have no time to read a two-page reflection on everything you have ever done. Rather, you want to highlight the most relevant accomplishments that make you qualified for the position. When invited to an interview, you will have the opportunity to share stories of experiences not listed in your cover letter. The purpose of the cover letter is to get you the interview, so be concise.
5. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread
No matter how engaging and relevant your stories in the cover letter are, interviewers will disregard them if your writing skills are lacking. In fact, Matthews points out, the cover letter serves as a mini writing sample that showcases whether you are able to express yourself clearly and professionally in a written text. “When reviewing a cover letter, the first thing I look for is typos. If I see a typo, I don’t go any further.”
Ideally, you'll have a few people review your draft once you finish it. Ask a friend for assistance and read it aloud to her. The practice helps you hear issues you may not have noticed otherwise. Lastly, consider making an appointment with a writing tutor at your campus -- tutors are there to help you become a better writer!