If first impressions are as important as psychologists tell us, then cover letters might be described as one of the most important aspects of the entire job search process. The moment a potential employer reads the letter that accompanies your resume is the first time a they encounter you and your first opportunity you have to make a positive impression. It has been said that half of employers will not read your resume, unless it is accompanied by a cover letter and even more will reject it, based on the quality of the letter.
For a moment, put yourself in the employer’s shoes. After posting a job which they are anxious to fill quickly and easily, employers often tell me that — despite the overwhelming amount of cover letters and resumes they may receive — they struggle to identify suitable candidates. Employers read through letter after letter, hoping to be struck by candidates who are able to present themselves as suitably well qualified, likeable and competent enough to be invited for an interview.
It seems to me that, for many job seekers, cover letters are often the weakest aspect of their job search efforts, often neglected until the last moment before sending in a job application. If written at all, they are often generic, awkwardly worded and not very substantial, leaving the reader with a sense that not much effort was put into preparing them.
To determine what should go into an effective letter, it is useful to think about its definition and purpose. A cover letter can be described as a one page letter that accompanies a resume, introduces the candidate and motivates the employer to read the resume and consider the candidate for a position. A cover letter should clarify the link between the employer’s needs (which is often described as “qualifications” on the posting) and you (as listed in the “profile” or “summary” in your resume).
Your cover letter is an opportunity for you to market yourself to the employer by:
- indicating that you read the job posting and understand the expectations of the employer
- showing your interest and enthusiasm
- introducing your resume and identifying the specific aspects of the resume that are most relevant to the job
- showing off your excellent writing skills, both in terms of grammar and spelling
- indicating to the employer that you can and will follow instructions, by applying exactly the way the employer requested in the job ad/posting
Cover letters should accompany almost any resume, whether it is in response to a posting, is solicited (i.e. the employer asked you to send them a resume), or even unsolicited (i.e. you are sending the resume to employers, in case they are hiring). Check your resume against this checklist of “do’s” and “don’ts”:
- Don’ t use a generic cover letter; instead, write a unique and personalised letter for each employer
- Match the letter to your resume, in terms of the font and “letterhead” (i.e. the format you use for your name and address)
- Don’t forget to mention the specific job title as identified in the job posting, including any reference numbers provided by the employer
- Mention where you found the job posting
- Describe yourself to the employer in terms of the specific qualifications described in the posting; don’t assume that the employer will read your resume unless they find what they need in the cover letter
- Try to find a balance between being too friendly and too formal; show the level of enthusiasm that is suitable to the type of position to which you are applying
- Keep the letter short, simple and easy to read
- Check your spelling and grammar very carefully, every time you send a cover letter
- Don’t depend on Spell-Check — it will only pick up some errors, not all (it will miss a mistake if it is a real word, like using “form” instead of “from”)
- Follow the instructions in the posting, making sure to submit it in time and to the specific person outlined in the advertisement
As the expression goes, you only get one opportunity to make a good first impression. It is well worth investing time and efforts to write a high quality letter which conveys your enthusiasm and show the employer the exact reasons to consider your unique candidacy for the position. Capturing the interest of the employer can be a deal breaker; if your cover letter does not impress, likelihood is that the employer will not turn to your resume or call you for an interview, whereas a well worded and thoughtful letter can go a long way to meeting the next person who may hire you for that position you are working so hard to find.