by Katharine Hansen, PhD.
The Ten Most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Job-Search Cover Letters
Downsizing. Rightsizing. Streamlining. Corporate restructuring. You’ve heard the buzzwords. You’re terrified. And you’re ready with a spanking, new resume. But at a time when employers are inundated with resumes, how can you make yours stand out in the crowd?
You can write a dynamic cover letter. The cover letter is usually an afterthought, dashed off to accompany a resume into which you’ve poured blood, sweat, and cash. Its potential as a powerful marketing tool frequently is overlooked.
These expert answers to these 10 commonly asked questions about cover letters can help you write a letter that is a key part of a hard-to-resist sales package:
- Why is a Cover Letter Necessary?
- What are the Biggest Mistakes Cover-Letter Writers Make?
- Which Kind of Cover Letter Will Work Best for Me?
- Can’t I just Mass-Produce the Same Letter to all the Companies for Which I’m Interested in Working?
- What’s the Most Important Thing to Include in the Body of the Letter?
- What Other Approaches Make a Cover Letter Dynamic?
- Should I Include References in my Cover Letter?
- How Long Should the Letter be?
- What’s the Best Way to Make Sure my Cover Letter is Well-Written and on Target?
- Are Thank-You Letters Necessary?
Why is a cover letter necessary?
- A cover letter should always accompany your resume. Few employers will seriously consider a resume without a letter. A cover letter tells the employer exactly what kind of job you want to do and tailors your qualifications to that job.
Frequently the job-seeker will see this line in a rejection letter: “We chose the candidate who provided the best fit with our needs.” The cover letter is the way to show an employer how you fit the company’s needs.
Given the screening process, a cover letter may have as few as 20 seconds to grab an employer’s attention. A well-written, interesting cover letter that opens a window on your personality has a much better chance of enticing the employer to interview you than a boring, formulaic one.
What are the biggest mistakes cover-letter writers make?
- Addressing the letter to “Dear Personnel Director,” “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam” (or worse, “Dear Sirs”) instead of a named individual. The largest employer in Central Florida tosses cover letters in the circular file if they are not addressed to him personally. “To Whom It May Concern” shows the employer that you were not concerned enough to find out the name of the person with the hiring power.
- Telling the employer what the company can do for you instead of what you can do for the company. This mistake is particularly common among new college graduates and other inexperienced job-seekers. In most cases, employers are in business to make a profit. They want to know what you can do for their bottom line, not what they can do to fulfill your career dreams.
- Leaving the ball in the employer’s court. Too many cover letters end with a line like this: “If you are interested in my qualifications, please call me.” Proactive cover letters, in which the job-seeker requests an interview and promises to follow up with a phone call, are far more effective.
Which kind of cover letter will work best for me?
- The invited cover letter is a response to a want ad and can be tailored to the job requirements listed in the ad. This kind of cover letter is effective for the 20 percent of jobs that are publicly advertised.
- The uninvited or cold-contact cover letter is usually part of a mass mailing and requires the job-seeker to do some homework to find out about each prospective recipient company. The uninvited letter is the best way to tap the “hidden” job market, where 80 percent of the jobs lurk.
- The referral cover letter, which uses name-dropping to get the employer’s attention, is another excellent way to tap the hidden job market. When a mutual acquaintance tips you off to a job, you can use his or her name to your advantage in a cover letter: “Joseph Burns suggested I contact you about the opening you have in sales.”
Can’t I just mass-produce the same letter to all the companies for which I’m interested in working?
- Never — unless you use word-processing equipment that enables you to personalize each letter and include at least one paragraph specifically revealing your knowledge about each company and how you can meet its needs. Nothing turns off an employer faster than getting a letter that looks like the same one everyone else is getting. Why bother to do a cover letter if you don’t tailor it to the company and position you want?
What’s the most important thing to include in the body of the letter?
- Your Unique Selling Proposition (USP). An advertising term, the USP is the one thing that makes you better qualified to do the job than anyone else. The USP should answer the question: “Why should I hire this person?” Want more?
What other approaches make a cover letter dynamic?
- Some effective tricks:
- You can visually call attention to your qualifications by underlining them, boldfacing them, or indenting them in a list with bullets.
- You can quantify to tell the employer how many employers you supervised, how many customers you handled, how much money you saved the company, and most importantly, by what percentage you increased sales or profits.
- You can demonstrate your creativity and potential for innovation by revealing one or two ideas for how you would improve the employer’s operation or bottom line.
Entice the employer, but don’t give away too much for free. Tease in a non-threatening way; don’t turn the employer off by trashing the current staff.
Should I include references in my cover letter?
- Unless an ad specifically requests references, they belong in the interview phase of the job search. Most companies won’t check references until they become seriously interested in hiring a candidate.
How long should the letter be?
- Only in the rarest of circumstances should your letter be longer than a page, and considerably less than a page is best. About four paragraphs should do the trick. The first should grab attention, tell why you’re writing, and reveal what you want to do for the company. The second should introduce your Unique Selling Proposition. The third should further amplify your qualifications (without rehashing your resume). The last paragraph should ask for an interview, tell how you plan to follow up, and thank the employer for considering you. Answering an ad may require another paragraph or two to tailor your qualifications to the job requirements.
Your letter should be not only fairly short, but also concise and pithy. Edit your letter mercilessly. Follow the journalist’s credo: Write tight! Cut out all unnecessary words and jargon. Then go back and do it again.
Need more tips on your cover letter format? Check out our Cover Letter Formula Page.
What’s the best way to make sure my cover letter is well-written and on target?
- If your time frame will allow it, put your cover letter down, and then pick it up a day or two later as though you were the prospective employer. Does it grab and hold your attention? Is it concise? Is it free of typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors? Is it interesting? If you were the employer, would you know what this job-seeker wants to do and why he or she is the best person to do it? Would you invite this job-seeker for an interview?
Before you mail it off, check out our Cover Letter Do’s and Don’ts Page.
Are thank-you letters necessary?
- Given the fact that almost all job-hunting books advise sending a thank-you note after an interview, it is surprising how few job-seekers do so. A thank-you letter probably will not make the difference between getting the job and not getting the job, but if the employer is weighing two equally qualified candidates, the one who sends a thank-you note just might have the edge over the one who doesn’t. It’s common courtesy to thank the employer for taking time to interview you. The thank-you letter also enables you to amplify the positive aspects of your interview and, perhaps correct any negative aspects.
Have questions about other aspects of job-hunting? Find our entire collection of answers to the most frequently asked questions in the Quintessential Careers Career, Job-Search, and Job-Hunting FAQs for Job-Seekers.
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.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.