A cover letter is the first chance you get to present yourself to a potential employee in an engaging way. It allows you to go into detail about your experience, present your writing skills and hint at any research that you've done on the company. Basically, it's your time to show off a little. With that in mind, you should make sure it really stands out. Below are 10 tips on how to do that:
1. Write Eloquently. Along with the requisite qualifications, organizations are always interested in hiring talented writers. Thus, even if you lack the preferred credentials, you may nonetheless impress the reader through writing a cover letter that conveys an original message in a clear, persuasive, and endearing way. And in situations where you are competing with equally-qualified candidates, an engaging and extraordinarily well-written cover letter can set you apart.
2. Customize. Before you start writing, sit back and think. Think about what would be the most persuasive and appealing way to write your cover letter. What story do you want to tell? What value proposition do you want to convey? When you are comfortable with your chosen angle, research the organization to add depth and tailor your letter to speak directly to its audience. Reference specific names, events, traits, or other characteristics which are unique to the organization. This will create a positive impression that you have done your homework.
3. Use Catchwords. Like your resume, your cover letter may first be skimmed. To pass this initial inspection, make sure that your cover letter contains verbiage that grabs the reader's attention and focuses them in on your qualifications.
4. Don't (openly) brag. There is a fine line between describing your accomplishments and overselling yourself. To avoid the latter, focus on writing with humility. Your resume should have already set forth your achievements in an objective manner. Thus, as a general rule, you should only repeat your exploits in the cover letter if they are tied to some benefit for the organization.
5. Get names right. Review the cover letter for mistakes, then review it again to confirm that all names are spelled correctly. Nothing will get your cover letter discarded quicker than misspelling the name or address of a recipient or organization.
6. Avoid repeating information from your resume. Space is a precious commodity on your resume and cover letter. Make sure every word counts. Repeating information is a wasted opportunity and may cause the reader to lose interest or conclude that you are repeating materials because you lack qualifications.
7. No mistakes. As with your resume, the highest possible standards for grammar, spelling, and spacing apply to your cover letter. One errant period or a missing letter can be interpreted by the reader to mean you have a poor attention to detail or are not serious about your application; both of which will likely result in a rejection.
8. More competition, more risk the cover letter. If you suspect that you are less qualified than others who may be applying for the same position, be unique with your cover letter. Try being overly precise about your value proposition. Avoid the conventional angles and be creative. Use a quotation, testimonial, slogan, or mission statement. You want to be memorable; that may be your best shot at getting hired amongst steep competition.
9. Get an editor. A cover letter is an extremely important document and should be treated as such. That means writing it thoughtfully and editing it thoroughly. Once you finish your first draft, have a trusted peer review it and help you perfect the material, word choice, and tone.
10. Don't be pushy. You should be asking for an interview. Nothing more. Avoid command-like phrases such as “please contact me upon your review of my resume to schedule an interview” or “you should give me an opportunity to prove that I would be a valuable addition to the firm.” Instead, phrase these same messages as a passive, conditional suggestion “If you have questions regarding my candidacy, please feel free to contact me to discuss. I am available at your convenience.”
Though people can often see the cover letter as just another obstacle to getting an interview, think of it as a stepping stone that can be vital in getting the job you really want.
Maxwell D. Rosenthal is in-house counsel at a large media and entertainment company in New York City. He is also the author of The Bridge: How to Launch Your Career through a Legal Internship (Lexis Nexis 2015), which can be found on his website www.bridgethebook.com. Max also frequently speaks at law schools and bar associations on topics related to career development and legal experiential learning. He can be reached at Max@bridgethebook.com or on twitter at @MaxDRosenthal.