by Beth Connolly on January 31, 2012
A perfect cover letter is like the far-off lake that a parched desert wanderer spies on the horizon. The harder you try to reach it, the further away it seems. Does it really exist–or is it just a beautiful mirage?
Don’t despair, because it does exist. But every job applicant must dedicate time to reaching it. As long as you are applying for jobs in the same field, you can usually send off a bunch of resumes with only a few tweaks from job to job. But the same can never be done with a cover letter. Copy-and-pasted cover letters reek of lazy disingenuousness, and are a major turn-off to hiring managers. Plus, they often contain critical mistakes, like referring to the wrong company name or details. So the first step to a breakthrough cover letter is putting in the time.
The second step is a realization: only a breakthrough cover letter will give you an advantage over other candidates before the reader even glances at your resume. An average or acceptable letter–the kind that the average jobseeker sends–will merely make your resume blend in with the pack. So aim high.
Thirdly: do your research and know your audience. The tone of your letter–formal or informal–depends on the company culture. Make sure you get a sense of their culture and include items of interest in the letter–any anecdotes that explain exactly why you are interested in working for them.
Fourthly: Know Yourself. Your resume gives the catalogue of your qualifications, but your cover letter is a place where your stellar personality and personal qualities can shine through. Lifehacker quotes Joel Spolsky, founder of Fog Creek Software, to prove this point:
The number one best way to get someone to look at your resume closely: come across as a human being, not a list of jobs and programming languages. Tell me a little story. “I’ve spent the last three weeks looking for a job at a real software company, but all I can find are cheezy web design shops looking for slave labor.” Or, “We yanked our son out of high school and brought him to Virginia. I am not going to move again until he is out of high school, even if I have to go work at Radio Shack or become a Wal*Mart greeter.” (These are slightly modified quotes from two real people.)
Fourth: Show, Don’t Tell: This is a classic piece of advice that all writers keep in their back pocket. You are a much more effective written communicator when your message is conveyed through evidence rather than narrative. In fiction, this means using images, events, or conversations to convey a feeling or aspect of a character’s personality. In a cover letter, it means using relevant stories and anecdotes to convey to the reader an aspect of your personality.
Finally, Lifehacker has a handy list of three things every single employer needs to get from a cover letter before he or she moves on to a resume:
1. You’re smart.
2. You’ll get things done.
3. You’ll fit in well with their corporate culture.