Your cover letter is a first impression that should be as memorable as an elevator pitch, as brief as a one-page resume, and as effective as an interview in showing why you’re the right candidate to move forward in the hiring process.
Oh yeah, and it’s all in writing.
That’s because your cover letter is used to judge not only your qualifications, but also your communication skills. This may sound overwhelming, but here’s the good news: If you write an excellent cover letter, you will stand out from the pack.
So, what do the very best cover letters have in common? They strike the right balance. Meaning: They say enough, but they’re not too long; they’re memorable, but not too personal; they show how awesome you are, but they don’t brag.
To make sure you walk the perfect line, try this approach. First, write the best cover letter you can—down to proofreading and spell-checking—or dig up the last one you wrote for review. (Trust me, having something to work with is way easier than staring at a blank page and thinking about balance). Then, review the letter and see where it falls on the spectrum for each of the points below—and adjust accordingly.
1. Inquiring vs. Salesy
When you really want a position, your cover letter can veer too far to the inquire side of the spectrum. In other words, you sound like you’re asking someone to consider your candidacy, using phrases like "I’d love to be considered" and "I’m eager to apply." But while showing your excitement about a position is important, using a tone that’s enthusiastic-verging-on-desperate can make you come off as underqualified. (Why else would the position be an “honor” for you?)
On the flip side, there’s the sell, sell, sell cover letter—the one that signs off, “I expect to hear back” rather than “I look forward to learning more.” You do want to be confident, of course, but a salesy tone can overshadow your solid qualifications and make you seem pompous and aggressive (probably not what you’re going for).
Find the Balance
If your letter seems over-eager, write a strong sentence for the first and last paragraphs that state exactly how you would contribute—and use it to replace any statements about what you hope to learn or gain. Think you might be singing your praises a little too loudly? Keep the sections that evidence your abilities, but replace at least one part about your greatness with admiration for someone or something else (read: the company you’re applying to).
2. Length vs. Brevity
Anyone can say they effectively led meetings, but by sharing three pages of the best practices you’ve developed over the years, you’re demonstrating it, right? Well, even if you are blessed with a benevolent enough hiring manager to avoid disqualifying you immediately, your lengthy letter will get, at best, a skim. And who wants their accomplishments glossed over?
Of course, for everyone who tends to ramble, there’s someone else who lives on the other extreme. But remember that, even if you think “superior fundraiser” sums things up pretty well, sharing just one more sentence that says how much money you raised could be just what catches the hiring manager’s eye.
Find the Balance
First, set a reasonable target for overall length (it’s hard to go wrong keeping it between a half and full page). Then, within the letter, try to alternative paragraphs that list several qualifications rapid-fire with paragraphs that expound on one or two achievements. Think an intro, a paragraph that covers three to four skills, a paragraph that expounds on one or two prior experiences that are particularly relevant, and a wrap-up paragraph that covers any final points.
3. Experience vs. Requirements
One of my pet peeves when I read applications is when candidates describe everything they’ve ever accomplished—but never once connect their experience back to the job description. There are two problems here: One, even if you did write it for specifically for this company, it looks like a letter you could send anywhere, which hiring mangers don’t appreciate. Worse, you’re leaving it up to hiring managers to decide whether the project you conducted actually translates to the skills the position requires—an assumption they may or may not make.
Alternatively, I’ve seen candidates so focused on naming every requirement that their letters get clunky and may even omit unique, additional skills that would help set them apart. Why, for example, waste a line you could use to discuss your volunteer experience by saying you know how to use Microsoft Word?
Find the Balance
Remember those English lessons about topic sentences and concluding sentences? You must have a topic or concluding sentence that explains how the experience mentioned in the rest of the paragraph relates back to what the company is looking for. You can discuss your accomplishments and skills in the body of the paragraph, but don’t forget the most important part: showing why you are the best candidate, above all others, for the position.
It can be challenging to navigate what feels like opposing forces during the job search process. But the best approach is to take some from each and strike a balance, which will give you a stronger, more well-rounded cover letter.
Photo courtesy of Creatas Images / Creatas / Thinkstock.
Sara McCord is a freelance writer and editor, who most frequently covers the career beat. For nearly three years, she was an editor at The Muse, and she's regularly contributed career advice to Mashable. Her advice has been published across the web (Forbes, Newsweek, Fast Company,TIME, Inc., Business Insider, CNBC and more). Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. Learn more and send her a note through her website, or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author