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How to Write a Winning Cover Letter

How to Write a Winning Cover Letter
Credit: Mangostar/Shutterstock

Cover letters are a crucial part of any job application. Often, hiring managers won't even look twice at an application that is submitted without a cover letter, or one that is cookie cutter in nature. Not only is it important to include a cover letter but to write one that is specific to the job you are applying for and that conveys the message that you're the best candidate.

"Hiring managers are always searching for potential employees who are going to go the extra mile," said Steve Wang, who's worked in human resources for more than 20 years. "Making cover letters optional in the hiring process acts as the perfect way to identify these individuals, because the ones who do take that extra initiative to not only submit a cover letter but also tailor that cover letter to the specific job at hand will most likely be the same people who will go that extra mile once hired."

But that's easier said than done. How can you explain your skills and accomplishments in a page or less? And how can you do it in a way that will stick out from the herd? These hiring managers and entrepreneurs offered their advice, as well as their precautions, to job applicants working on their cover letters.

To stand out from the crowd and make a positive first impression on the hiring manager, be sure to follow these tips, which ensure personalization and incentivize prospective employers to look more closely at your application.

  • DO keep it short and sweet: "Recruiters and hiring managers don't have time to read a long letter," said Denise Dudley, a professional trainer and business consultant. "They want to find what they're looking for within two to three short paragraphs."
     
  • DO showcase your personality: "I look for personality in a cover letter. Although you don't want to go over the top, the cover letter is a great place to begin to show your new employer who you are and give insight into your unique point of view," said Adam Winstead, vice president of human resources and operations at GS&F. "Often, recruiters and HR professionals look through hundreds of resumes and cover letters so breaking out of the monotony will help give you that extra glance. After all, that's what a cover letter is for…to entice the hiring manager to take a look."
     
  • DO reference key items in your resume: "The cover letter should give the screener a good reason to read the resume," said Timothy Wiedman, a retired associate professor of management and human resources at Doane University. "Especially if the resume itself is somewhat lengthy, it should tell the reader the specific section of the resume where those important items can be found."

Avoid these common errors to boost the odds that your application is more thoroughly reviewed and seen in a favorable light by the hiring manager.

  • DON'T reuse the same cover letter for multiple job applications: "It's understandable to expect that a professional will keep a loose cover letter template at the ready, but this template needs to be customized for each and every job application," said Nate Masterson, HR director for Maple Holistics. "If it's apparent that a cover letter is a one-size-fits-all template, it not only looks like the applicant put little effort into applying, but it also speaks to a lack of research into our organization as well as care for how the applicant feels that he or she can specifically contribute."
     
  • DON'T submit a cover letter without proofreading it: "It goes without saying, but I will mention it anyway: The cover letter should be completely free from grammatical and spelling errors. I will trash any sloppy cover letters and resumes I receive," said Sheryl Johnson, founder of BD-PRo Marketing Solutions.
     
  • DON'T write an essay: "The number one rule is to make your cover letter NOT read like a cover letter but rather compose it conversationally, as if you were having an in-person conversation with the reader," said Elliot B. Jaffa, a marketing consultant and professional trainer.

Your cover letter and resume should work in tandem to grant hiring managers insights into your skills and how you will apply them to achieve the company's specific goals if hired.

If you're ready to optimize your resume to help get you the job, check out these resume writing tips as well. Taken together, a polished resume and cover letter combination is an indispensable tool to the job seeker.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.