So you want to write that killer cover letter to land your dream job? Not so fast. You’ve got to give your cover letter the respect it deserves. For years, the Hiring Manager at XYZ Corporation has been reading all kinds of these letters, giving a few the green light… but she’s been rejecting all the rest. In order to grab her attention in all the right ways, follow these seven easy steps.

1. The Appearance

If your overall presentation isn’t top notch, then it’s not going to get the respect it deserves. Though it won’t be covered here, be sure to tune up your resume or your curriculum vitae (CV) alongside your cover letter.

Start by following a simple layout. In the top-center of the letter, have a letterhead bearing your name in a bold, large font. On a single line below your name, type out your address, your phone number, and your email address. (If you don’t have a letterhead, you may place your name, address, phone number and email in a heading in the top-left corner.)

Next, place the company heading as close to the top-left corner as possible. It should have the recipient’s name, his or her job title, the company name, and the full address of the company. In the top right-hand corner of your letter, you should spell out the date like this: June 1st, 2014. (You may also place the date directly above the company heading.)

The salutation should be placed a couple of lines down from that. It is acceptable to have a subject line underneath the salutation, for example: RE: C++ Programmer, Job ID: EG3-1228965.

The body of your letter should have EXACTLY three paragraphs: an introduction, a middle and a conclusion. These paragraphs ought to be brief, three to five sentences each. Be sure to use the correct terminology and active language. And, most importantly, omit needless words.

The final statement is your farewell, also known as a valediction. This, too, should be brief and genuine. A few spaces down from the valediction, place your first and last name.

Remember, your cover letter should only be a single page. For a few examples of the overall layout of a cover letter, try using a search engine to view examples. Search images for: cover letter examples.

2. The Salutation

When you send out a cover letter, address the exact person who will receive it. You will have to research who this person is, of course. There are many ways to go about doing this, and I recommend you check the official company website first. From time to time, you will find a company directory, so check the Human Resources (HR) department to find out who handles hiring new employees. If you can’t find the hiring manager in this way, try looking up profiles on LinkedIn that meet the criteria. If you find someone who claims to be in charge of new hires for the company in your region, copy down his or her name for your cover letter. You may also try calling the company directly in order to learn the hiring manager’s name.

If you can’t find the name of the person to send your letter to, that is okay. The most accepted way to address a cover letter nowadays is “Dear Hiring Manager,” or “To the Hiring Committee:” followed by a comma or a colon. Some job hunters prefer to address their letters with “Dear Sir or Madam,” instead, but I do not recommend this salutation. DO NOT open by stating “To whom it may concern.” HR employees often remove these cover letters from the mix due to the broadness of the salutation – and it actually makes you sound unconcerned.

Form your salutation in the simplest way – address your reader properly – it’s as easy as that.

3. The Introduction

To stand out, you’ve got to have a killer first sentence. Picture the hiring manager a moment: he or she has to read a number of cover letters every day. All of the letters read follow a format to be sure, but he or she is tired of reading the same old stuff. That’s why you’ve got to WOW them.

Open your letter with the truth, plain and simple: “I have several years’ experience in the restaurant industry, and I hope you will consider me for the position of Kitchen Manager.” Or perhaps you’d prefer a slightly-augmented example: “Capitalizing on my accomplishments in web-based SEO analysis, I would like to express my interest in serving your online community as a Social Media Marketer.” Whatever the case, it is important that you are clear and concise. You ought to mention how you found out the company is hiring as well. If you were referred by someone within the company, it behooves you to mention his or her name and position in the first sentence.

The opening paragraph is designed to show why you are a good match for the company. Mention two or three exacting qualifications you have that suits the position, drawing upon the skills your resume entails. (Take note of these qualifications as you write, since you will amplify their specificity to the position in question in the paragraphs to come.) Whatever you decide to include, DO NOT simply parrot what is contained in your resume/CV! Your cover letter is meant to reveal the strengths within your skill set, so showcase your abilities accordingly.

4. The Middle

In the second paragraph of your killer cover letter you must give concrete examples of your qualifications. The company you would like to work for has an exact need that they want to fill – be sure to target that need! Outline a few specific activities you have performed in your career that best pairs you for the position.

Here is where your storytelling skills will come in handy. Describe scenarios in which you succeeded in overcoming some obstacles in a recent job. Each instance should show how you met the need that the company is looking for. If the position calls for troubleshooting skills and phone etiquette, then describe how you handled that difficult tech support call and turned the customer around. If your prospective employer wants someone to fill a sales position, don’t be afraid to show exactly how many contracts you secured for your corporation. These instances should come out of the experience delineated in your resume: make them colorful, concise and effective. Some examples:

“Recently, I was Vice President of Sales and Marketing for ABC Bank. Our account acquisition was in a slump, even though we had offered $150 for each customer who referred a new account. The bank manager had set a challenging goal for the third quarter – one hundred new accounts. Since we live in a small town, I decided to capitalize on a grass roots effort to get the word out. I posted flyers at the local college campus, supermarkets and mini-malls, and I even executed a social media campaign on behalf of the ABC branch. I managed to get 30 new accounts in the first month, and my own sales portfolio included over 100 accounts by the end of the quarter.”

“In 2013, I was Project Manager for TechGuru’s recent app, JoyfulNoise. There were a few hurdles to overcome: the interface needed to be tighter, there were a few bugs, and there were similar products on the market. As the lead, I decided to improve the user interface myself, thereby freeing up my team to work out the software issues. Finally, we added a new feature to the product which allowed users to share their ringtones with others on the platform. Since the time of its launch in December of 2013, JoyfulNoise has had an uptick in sales every single month.”

The story should have new information about your skills and abilities, within the framework of your resume. I repeat, do not just copy-and-paste the details of your resume into your cover letter. Beware: It will make your effort to WOW the hiring manager fall flat, forcing her to put your resume at the bottom of the pile.

A final note on bullets: it is en vogue nowadays to include bullet points in the middle paragraph of your cover letter. Using bullet points is a simple way to get the attention of the reader, but it can also distract from a well-thought out narrative.

-          Bullet points can give quick detail

-          They effectively draw immediate focus

-          But they will also detract from everything else you wrote!

These are very easy ways to make things “pop” in your cover letter. If this is a very important position for you, take the time to follow the classic format of the cover letter. Besides, would you want the hiring manager to have to look at the same old bullet points she sees in every single cover letter? No! You want your letter to stand out. Therefore, nix the bullets.

 

5. The Conclusion

Your conclusion should be the shortest of your paragraphs. There are three aspects of a final paragraph: an invitation to look at the resume, an interest in an interview, and gratitude for the opportunity. First, you must direct the hiring manager to examine your resume. If this is a digital cover letter, say something like: “Please consider my attached resume for the position.” If this is a physical letter, then refer to the resume as “enclosed.” Also, if you are applying online, it is good to place any hyperlinks to pertinent web pages in this final paragraph, as in: “Please visit my LinkedIn page.” Where possible, incorporate the link into the text (as in the underlined portion), and avoid using cumbersome web addresses.

Second, express your interest in meeting the hiring manager. Now this could mean a face-to-face interview. On the other hand, many hiring departments choose to interview over the phone or over the internet using Skype. For this reason, keep the method of the interview ambiguous: “Looking forward to speaking with you further,” or “I would like to arrange an interview to discuss my qualifications and to learn more about the organization.”

It is also acceptable in this paragraph to mention you are available immediately, and your salary is negotiable. While these are not requirements for the cover letter, certain positions are highly desirable and you may want to express your eagerness in this manner.

Most importantly, thank the hiring manager for her time. Just think of how many of these letters she has to read! If you show your gratitude in a genuine fashion, as well as your interest in the opportunity, she will be more apt to consider you for the position. Don’t just assume your abilities can speak for themselves: a little bit of kindness and deference can go a long way.

 

6. The Valediction

The closing remark in your killer cover letter should be short and sweet, not long and saccharine. The two most acceptable valedictions: “Sincerely,” and “Best regards,” to be exact (though many writers shorten the latter to simply, “Best,”). Sometimes I prefer to say “Cordially,” but that is just to shake things up. (Note: if you are writing to an employer in the UK, “Faithfully,” is the most effective valediction.)

 

7. The Final Draft

Edit your cover letter. Read it, re-read it, and then give it to someone else to read. Spell-check will overlook many grammatical errors, so you must be diligent. Try reading it backwards, sentence by sentence. Be sure to check that the content is sound, and you have told a good overall story. Verify spellings of names and addresses, ensuring every detail is correct. Finally, if you’re furnishing a physical copy for your employer, be sure to print it on decent paper.

An excellent cover letter requires you pay great attention to detail, and that you put yourself in the shoes of the HR department. It is more-than-okay to showcase your talents and to entertain (a little bit). Be empathetic, and imagine what you would want to read. Most of all, recognize that you are the best person for the position, and reveal your wondrous story – you’re bound to land that job with your killer cover letter!

Featured photo credit: Ninja The Last Thing You See/Joey Gannon via upload.wikimedia.org

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