Cover Letter Tips: The First Paragraph

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While employers will probably read your entire cover letter from beginning to end, they may base their entire decision on the first paragraph alone—even if they don’t realize that they’re doing this.

The mind works in funny ways, and as we read a document designed to make an argument or sell something, we often jump to a conclusion immediately, before we’ve had a chance to review all the available evidence. From that point forward, we pick and choose the evidence presented to us in order to favor the details that support the decision we’ve already made.

This kind of reading process is just a part of human nature, and while wise hiring managers will recognize and fight against this impulse in order to make effective decisions, the impulse still exists. The best way around it is simple (though it’s easier said than done): Just make sure this initial, unconscious decision works in your favor. In other words, make sure the first paragraph of your letter wins your reviewers over. After that, the details will ideally fall into place on their own.

Here are a few ways to pack as much awesome as possible into the first few sentences of your cover letter.

1. Don’t be a jerk. Think of the first line of your letter as an opening line you’d use if you were approaching s stranger at a party. Would you risk addressing the person by the wrong name? If she’s female, will she enjoy reading a letter that starts with “dear sir?” No and no.

2. Acknowledge your reader before you start rambling on about yourself. State the position you’d like to apply for, let the reader know how you found out about it, and then begin explaining why you’re right for the job and how your skills and credentials can benefit the company. Don’t launch into a list of all the things you want, the things you need, the things you’ve been through, and the things you’ve decided to be true about the world.

3. Be smooth. Language is an art form, even in this context. Vary the rhythm of your sentences. Intersperse short ones with long ones full of dependent clauses. Don’t start every sentence with “I.” And avoid empty verbs like “had,” “has,” “is,” “was,” and “did.” Replace them with something more specific.

4. Don’t be fake. Only express thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires that come from a true place. People are geniuses at discerning false preening, empty babble, and attempts to manipulate. You want this job. There’s nothing wrong with that. So flatter only if your flattery is genuine. Otherwise, just explain why this position is right for you, and do so in a way that earns calm respect, not an irritated eye roll.

A Strong Cover Letter Starts With the First Word

For more on how to get in the door and win an employer’s respect before she reaches the end of your first paragraph, visit LiveCareer. The site offers interview tips, a database of job search leads, and a sophisticated, easy-to-use Resume Builder and Cover Letter Builder that can help you make a great first impression.  

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