Writing a cover letter may seem secondary to crafting a flawless resume, but career strategists say it's an oft-overlooked piece of an application. The kiss of death? Letters that are too long, too generic or addressed to the nameless "Hiring Manager."
Organization is Key
To start, look carefully over the job description and make a two-column chart detailing all the requirements in one column, suggests Joan Roberts, owner and president of CareerCounseling.com, a career assessment, testing and coaching Web site. Then list all the ways your skills meet or exceed those needs in the other column.
Make sure to transfer this important data to your cover letter.
"One of my clients was in mergers and acquisitions, and it was very important that he quantify the value he brought to his employers," Roberts says. "He needed to point out how many millions of dollars his projects were worth, and how he helped those companies make transitions better or faster."
Change is the Only Constant
With so many companies in upheaval, your cover letter ought to point out your ability to embrace change, says Ernie Humphrey, director of treasury services for the Association for Financial Professionals, an advocacy group for the treasury and corporate finance industry. According to Bernie Siegel, president of the New York City chapter of the International Coach Federation, other personal attributes that jump out at hiring managers include an ability to accept constructive criticism and skills that are easily transferable to different job functions.
Style is Important
If you feel like your writing skills are lousy, hiring a career coach to massage your cover letter is always an option, says Diane Hudson Burns, director of the Certified Career Coach Program at the Career Coach Institute.
But don't allow the career coach to build a false brand by presenting a communication style that is nothing like your own. Also, analyzing the language used in the company's annual reports and press releases can give clues as to the company's preferred style.
"I would go so far as to see whether the company uses a serif or sans serif font," Hudson Burns says.
If you're applying for a posted position, and the job description doesn't name the hiring manager, it's time to do a little detective work, Humphrey says.
"There are professional sites like Hoover's and Jigsaw that have extensive company directories," he says. "If you can find out who would be managing you, they can be an excellent resource. Even if they refer you to someone in human resources to process your application, finding the right person shows a lot of initiative."
Joining a professional association may also lead you to the right name. Humphrey says he frequently gets phone calls from AFP members asking for contact information for hiring managers throughout the industry.
To add that extra level of detail to a cover letter, utilize Google to see if the hiring manager has made a speech, or hit the headlines recently.
"People love hearing about themselves, as well as talking about themselves," Siegel says.
Stick to the Facts
If there's a gap in your employment, don't worry about pointing it out in your cover letter. Keep it to your positive attributes and highlight your strengths, says CareerCounseling.com's Ms. Roberts. You can address a layoff during your interviews.
Keep the letter to one page (Mr. Siegel recommends three paragraphs or so), and keep the font to 12 point. "If I have to take out my glasses to read your letter, it's going into the trash," Siegel says.
Know Your Audience
If the job application is sent to a recruiter, not your would-be hiring manager, be sure to include salary requirements and your willingness to relocate.
The opening of your letter is the best place for any name-dropping.
If you were referred to the position by a current employee, make sure to mention that right away.
"If you've spoken to the person you're submitting the resume to, that's even better," Siegel says. "If there's a flicker of recognition, that could help your resume get to the top of the pile."
When closing your letter, include an action statement that details when you intend to follow up. When Siegel was chief financial officer of Waterhouse Securities (now TD Ameritrade), he saved every resume he received -- until the date specified by the job candidate had passed.
Though just one part of the job application, a cover letter can help you stand out in a crowd. Basic rules apply: Keep it concise and to the point, know who you're speaking with and address them accordingly, and don't forget to close.
-- Diana Middleton
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