Killer Cover Letters or Cover Letters that Kill

As a career coach, I am asked to review a lot of cover letters (although not as many as I do resumes). As an administrator, I have also been in the position of seeing a lot of cover letters from individuals seeking employment with my organization. I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of cover letters:

  • Killer cover letters that hit it out of the park. After reading these, I don’t even need to check out the resume, I know they are the perfect candidate.
  • Cover letters that kill the application. After reading these, I don’t want to waste my time looking at the resume.

I have seen some research that found that employers’ response to cover letters tend to fall into three evenly split pools: those that read the cover letter before the resume; those that read the cover letter after the resume; and those that never read the cover letter. Do you know which employer you will be applying to? Probably not, so you better have a killer cover letter! Here are a few tips on writing your cover letter:

  1. Address Appropriately Never address your resume to “Whom it May Concern.” I don’t think Mr./Ms. Concern has a job, so I wouldn’t address it to them. Find someone that will be reading your materials and make it personal. Do some research, ask around, I will bet you can find a name. Often you can call and just ask for the name of the individual handling Human Resource issues. That will be enough. Even better is trying to find the name of the hiring manager and addressing it to them. If you can’t find any name, address it to the President or CEO of the organization. The important thing to remember is to address your cover letter to an actual person.
  2. Great Grammar This should go without saying, but I am always amazed at the poor grammar and spelling I see on cover letters. Don’t rely on the computer to completely check your work. Have at least one other human review your cover letter before it is sent. I have seen many applications extolling the applicant’s proofreading ability only to find several errors in their materials. They had materials that killed.
  3. Focus on the Future If you have the first two items covered well, this is where I see the biggest gap in cover letters. I had a client bring one in earlier this week where she focused on her history and what she has done for previous employers. Hopefully, you have a job description or at least have researched the organization to which you are applying to learn more about them. Write your cover letter to the future of that organization. They don’t care what success or tasks you completed for the previous employers. They are worried about what you will do for them–to help their organization succeed in whatever they do. In your research prior to applying, find out what their goals are (possibly from an annual report or list of strategic priorities), or what their biggest values are and be explicit about linking your qualifications to their needs.
  4. Ignore the I If you have done a great job of focusing on the future in your writing, this should not be a problem. Review your cover letter and see how many paragraphs and sentences begin with “I.” All of them? Reword some. If most of your sentences begin with the most personal of pronouns, you are probably not focused on the organization, but what you have done.
  5. Sever the Subjective One of my biggest pet-peeves in cover letters are phrases such as “I think,” “I feel,” “I believe,” etc. That is great that you have a positive self-image, but the employer will be the one who ultimately judges that area. If you have a sentence that begins with a similar phrase, you can remove that phrase and leave the rest of the sentence to make a much stronger statement about your qualifications.”I believe that my skills, education, and experience will help your company achieve its stated goals,” is a decent sentence. A stronger statement will be “My skills, education, and experience will help your company achieve its stated goals.” See how easy that was to fix? And the remaining statement is much stronger and shows that you have more confidence in yourself as well.

Many people tend to not place any emphasis on a cover letter, but spend hours upon hours on the resume. Both are equally important and should be equally strong. I hope that these few tips will help you create killer cover letters, rather than letting your cover letter kill your application.

What is the most difficult part of writing a cover letter for you?


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