by Elizabeth Freedman, MBA
Ever had a wince-worthy moment? A moment that you wish you could do over? One of mine came during a job search several years ago. I had learned about a hot job opportunity through a friend, and, convinced I had discovered my “dream job,” I quickly dashed off a cover letter and resume. I still cringe today when I think about the hiring manager’s parting words upon viewing my materials: “Well, Liz, we actually liked your qualifications, but your cover letter contained about 10 spelling mistakes. You even misspelled the name of our company.” The most upsetting thing about this experience is that if I had simply taken the time to carefully review my cover letter, I could have avoided this wince-worthy occurrence altogether.
As the saying goes, we get only one chance to make a first impression. In a competitive job market where human resources departments are flooded with applicants, a first impression may be your only opportunity to make an impact. When trying to land a first job or internship, a strong, succinct cover letter is one of the best tools you can use to get noticed. And unlike other first impressions, the cover letter puts the opportunity to succeed largely in your hands. To avoid wince-worthy moments and create a terrific first impression, read on for a couple of winning cover-letter suggestions.
Suggestion #1: Try the Convince … That … Because Method
A strong cover letter doesn’t just create a good impression — it helps you sell yourself. But selling yourself isn’t always easy. So use a technique that marketers use to sell us stuff: the convince … that … because method. When drafting your cover letter, think about the following:
Whom do you want to convince?
For instance, you might be writing to a hiring manager who needs somebody with strong writing skills. By knowing your audience, you’ll have the opportunity to specifically address the concerns or needs of your readers in your persuasive cover letter. One caveat: You may find job announcements that instruct applicants to send a letter to human resources, rather than provide a specific name of an individual. In these instances, you can try to track down, through company sources or networking, the name and title of a specific individual to whom you can address your letter. Otherwise, use the job description and knowledge of the company to best gauge your audience’s needs.
What are you trying to convince them of?
Using the example above, you are trying to convince a hiring manager that you have terrific writing skills. You may also want the hiring manager to know about your ability to speak French and your mastery of PowerPoint, if these are skills that are relevant to the job for which you’re applying. Be specific here: If you want to talk about your skills as a leader, be sure to mention a situation in which you demonstrated leadership skills. And remember to discuss the same skills that appear on your resume, providing additional information and detail in your letter.
Why should you be hired over someone else?
Here’s your opportunity to make a persuasive, convincing argument and sell your unique abilities. Using the previous example, you want to convince a hiring manager that you have terrific writing skills because you’ve consistently written on a wide range of topics for your school’s newspaper, providing valuable information to more than 500 students weekly for the past three years. Whatever your example, make sure you point out how your work made a positive difference, quantifying this difference whenever possible.
Suggestion #2: Look Sharp
Think of your cover letter as you, on paper — so you want to look your best and present a neat, professional package to your prospective employer. For starters, choose a quality paper (such as the kind used for resumes) in a conservative color (like white or ivory) to send your message, and make sure you use the same paper and font for your cover letter, resume, and envelope, since they are typically packaged together. Save the pink paper and funky font for another time, and watch smudges, crinkles, and other sloppy marks. Finally, make sure your letter is readable. If the font is too small (nothing less than ten points) or the letter too long (more than a page,), you’ve probably alienated your audience already.
Writing a winning cover letter isn’t the easiest task, but it’s well worth the effort, especially when you know that it can make the difference between a good first impression and a bad one. After all, taking the time to write a great letter ensures you’ll impress a prospective employer and practically guarantees a wince-free moment.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Elizabeth Freedman, MBA, is an award-winning speaker and business columnist. Throughout the year, Elizabeth speaks at dozens of universities and organizations, and at regional and national conferences to help college, MBA students and new professionals transform into leaders, savvy marketers, team players, and, ultimately, successful employees. Elizabeth is a 2005 Finalist for College Speaker of the Year, awarded by the Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities, and is the author of The MBA Student’s Job Seeking Bible: Everything You Need to Know to Land a Great Job After Graduation. She is a frequent contributor to Collegeboard.com and TopMBA.com, where she writes about work and life choices for students and new professionals. Contact Elizabeth at email@example.com.