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Cover Letter Dos and Don'ts

Feb 14, 2011

Preparing a job application? The cover letter is crucial for making a strong first impression. Check out these dos and don'ts for a crash course on writing an effective cover letter.

cover letter

Creating an Outstanding Cover Letter

When you're applying for a job, the cover letter is your chance to make a stellar first impression. It gives you the opportunity to:

  • express your strengths
  • demonstrate strong communication skills
  • show you've done your homework
  • explain why you're the perfect fit for the job
  • let your personality shine

It can also be your first chance to lose the job before you get it - a poor cover letter may mean that the potential employer doesn't even look at your resume. You can avoid that fate by following a few simple dos and don'ts.

Do...Research the employer and position.

Before you get started on the cover letter, read up on the employer and go through the job posting with a fine-tooth comb. Get as much information as you can about the employer's mission and the position you're seeking. This will give you keywords to use in your letter and allow you to convey why you're a great fit. Although cover letters aren't usually scanned electronically for keywords (like resumes are), having the right keywords will show the reader that it's a 'no-brainer' to bring you in for an interview.

Do...Name drop.

Networking is one of the most effective ways to land a job. If you know someone at the employer, mention that relationship in the beginning of your letter - just make sure you've cleared it with your contact first. Say something like 'Jose Gonzalez from Sales thought I would be a perfect fit for this position' or 'I was referred to you by Mary Smith, a long-time colleague who told me your employer could really use my database management skills.'

Do...Toot your own horn.

A cover letter isn't the place for modesty. Use it to communicate your strengths, skills, and relevant accomplishments. Be honest and straightforward, yet strong and confident. As they say, 'It's not bragging if it's true.'

Do...Connect the dots.

If you've done your research, you should know exactly what the employer is looking for - connect the dots for them. Spell out precisely why you're the perfect fit, both for the specific position and for the employer as a whole. Don't assume the employer will make the connection; human resources staff and hiring managers may not have time for that.

Do...Be polite.

Someone is taking valuable time out of their day to review your application. Show your appreciation by thanking the reader politely (but not profusely) at the end. For example, you can end you letter with 'Thank you for your time and consideration.'

Do…Address the cover letter to the right person.

Address the letter directly to the hiring manager or to the contact person given in the job posting. If at all possible, address an actual person by name. Use your network to find the right recipient. If, after trying, you can't find the name of the appropriate person, you can use 'Dear Hiring Manager.'

Do...Proofread carefully.

Is the recipient's name spelled correctly? Is the date accurate? Are your spelling and grammar error-free? Your future employer is going to use this letter to judge your writing and communication skills, so this step is essential. Read it over several times yourself, then find someone else to do a final check for you. If you don't have a second pair of eyes, sleep on it, then re-read your cover letter the next day before you send it out.

A common source of embarrassing errors is using an old cover letter as a starting point for a new one. If you don't start each letter from scratch, it's critical to check that you've changed all the relevant info.

editing

Don't...Boast.

But didn't we tell you to toot your own horn? Yes, but the key is to keep everything you say about yourself specific and verifiable. Instead of saying, 'I am a great communicator,' say, 'I have above average written and oral communication skills from my 10 years as a freelance writer and 5 years in public speaking. I have been honored with numerous journalism awards and won speech contests in Toastmasters.'

Don't...Lie.

It can be tempting to exaggerate your skills or tell little white lies on a cover letter. Don't do it. You'll be held accountable for all of the abilities and experience that you describe. Not only is getting caught in a lie humiliating, it can cost you the job.

Don't...Ignore instructions.

Carefully read the job posting for special instructions. Some employers ask you to put specific information or answers to questions in the cover letter. If you don't, you'll most likely be put in the 'No' pile right off the bat.

Don't...Use a one-size-fits-all approach.

There are specific things that should always be included in your letter (see above), and it's a good idea to follow formatting conventions. But within that framework, be inventive. Each letter should be tailored to the specific employer, and it should bring out the parts of your personality and experience that will be most compelling. Your letter is your chance to make your application pop - approach it more as a work of art than a dull exercise in filling in the blanks.


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