When people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I am a professional career coach who helps people get jobs (the inverse of a recruiter, who helps a company find people).  If they give me a puzzled look, I usually tell them I’m a professional resume writer.  That seems to clear things up, partially because people tend to have an unrealistic notion that the resume gets you the job.  That’s not really how it works these days.  In fact, I often argue that the cover letter is the most important thing I do for any client.  It’s the very first thing a potential employer will read about you, after all!  It’s also far less structured than a resume, which means there’s more opportunity to wander outside the lines of “normal”.  Writing a cover letter can be a terrifying task if you’re not prepared and not experienced, but I’m here to shed some light after reading countless introductions from eager applicants.

First, let’s briefly discuss the point and purpose of a cover letter, since this is where so many people go wrong.  A cover letter does not get you the job.  While we’re at it, neither does your resume.  Instead, think of every step in the application process as merely a “first down” in your quest for the end zone.  The function of a great cover letter is to get the reader interested enough to view your resume.  If your cover letter isn’t doing anything for them, they’re never double-clicking on that little attachment that represents all your hard work and achievement.  A great cover letter will get the reader interested and provide a seamless hand-off to the resume.  Oh, and while we’re at it, we should stop thinking about a cover letter as a physical page.  In most cases, especially if you read my recent article on getting straight to the recruiter, a cover letter is simply the body of an email.  This means we don’t need to worry about filling a page, we just need to capture interest.

Common Elements of a Poor Cover Letter: 

1.  Too long – If your cover letter is a full page or more, you might have a problem.  Nobody wants to read that much just to see if you’re in the ballpark for their job.

2.  Beats around the bush – If I’m two paragraphs in and I still don’t know what job you want, we have a problem.  If you can’t be direct in your cover letter, are you going to “get to the point” in meetings and in our day to day talks?

3.  Too thorough – This can go hand in hand with length, but far too many cover letters are simply a narrative form of the resume, citing every job and every education bullet point.  If I wanted a complete and exhaustive history on you, I’d open your resume.

4.  Focuses on the company – If you spend two paragraphs talking about what a wonderful place Company X is to work, all you’ve accomplished is telling the reader he works at a nice company.  Presumably he already knows that.  The point is to sell yourself, not show how much you want to get hired.

You can probably imagine where I’m headed, but here are the components of an excellent cover letter, which I make sure to follow each and every time I work with a client.

Elements of a Great Cover Letter:

1.  Concise and Brief –  Respect the reader’s time, and respect that you’re very early in the process, which means brevity is your friend.  I like to try for 2-3 paragraphs, only taking up about half a physical page.  This is short enough that it tends to get read entirely (as opposed to merely skimmed).

2.  Get to the Point! – In the very first sentence, tell them what job you want and why you’re an excellent fit.  The longer you wait, the more aimless you will seem.  There is something refreshing about walking into a room and making your intentions known, and that’s exactly what a good cover letter does.

3.  Highlight – don’t recite – your experience – Briefly mention your academic qualifications and a little of your history to show them you’re in the right ballpark for the position.  “I hold a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering.  For the past three years, I’ve worked at Company X, helping them design polymers that effectively reduce emissions and increase overall yield.”  We just want to give them enough of a glimpse to show we’re worth a second look.

4.  Gracefully Compliment – I like to mention one polite and personal statement about the company.  After all, you want them to know you’re interested in this company for a reason, not simply because you found it on a website.  Here’s the key: Save this for the end of your document.  Leading with how great the company is will just make you look like a suckup.  Ending with it shows respect and appreciation after you’ve established your value.

5.  Include a Call to Action – This is natural for sales and marketing folks, but a foreign concept to many in other fields.  Tell them you’d like to meet to discuss further, or that you’re extremely interested in interviewing.  It may seem obvious to you, but this shows that you’re a go-getter who is ready to further the process by prompting them for the next step. The world belongs to people who ask for it.

So there it is.  I can guarantee the results for this style of cover letter, because it’s been battle-tested for so many of my clients.  Be brief, clear and direct.  Walk into the room with a purpose and state your intentions. Briefly hint at your experience, show some respect for the company, and include a call to action.  If your skills and history are a match, I assure you they’ll take you seriously and look at your resume.  Congratulations on your first down!

If you think you might need help getting your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile in order, you can hire us to help at www.ExecutiveDrafts.com