In my second year of college, I spent the summer working at Walt Disney World, Florida. It was a three months long internship that included a short seminar on business communication skills. In this seminar, we learned how to write cover letters, prepare resumes and create business cards to use for networking, among other things.
The following year, I started applying for jobs and wrote numerous cover letters that were successful in fetching many interviews with a variety of companies.
Later in my career, I have been taught cover letter writing by others. Looking back, I realize that cover letter writing initially posed several challenges that I could overcome due to my learning.
Before I share my learning, let me outline the challenges that I faced whenever I wanted to write a coherent cover letter.
First, I did not know how to format the letter.
Second, I did not know how to organize the letter into paragraphs.
Third, I did not know how to customize the letter for a specific job posting.
Fourth, I did not know how to stand out from other applicants.
Fortunately, I now know numerous techniques to overcome these challenges.
To discuss these techniques, let’s use the following hypothetical job posting:
Customer Service Representative wanted for a large e-commerce company serving North America and parts of Europe. Requires work in a 24/7 call center in 6 to 8-hour long shifts. Base salary plus commission for successful sales over the telephone. Requires working evening, weekend and overnight shifts as per schedule. Previous customer service experience desirable but not required. Should be fluent in English. Please send cover letter and resume to [email protected]
My first challenge, as I mentioned, was how to format the letter. A simple rule of formatting, which I follow, is to keep my address on the top left and the hiring manager’s address below that but aligned left.
My second challenge was how to organize the letter into paragraphs.
I will discuss the three main paragraphs of the letter and then give you some tips about how to format the letter.
The first paragraph must contain three elements: a clear mention of the position that you are applying for, outline of skills that are relevant to this position and a strong statement that you are well suited to this position.
The second paragraph should add more details about these skills. You can follow one of two strategies to add these details.
Add a descriptive sentence for each skill mentioned in the first paragraph.
Refer to the skills required in the job description and demonstrate how your skills match these requirements. You can create a small box, for example, where the requirements are listed on the left column and your matching skills are listed on the right column.
The second strategy is more direct, while the first strategy indirectly explains why you are a good fit.
The third paragraph is the closing paragraph. It is important to mention here that your resume is attached, to provide more details about your skills and experience.
This is also a good opportunity to add a few soft skills that are relevant to the job posting. Even if you are a technical professional, such as a data analyst, do not neglect to highlight your soft skills.
Close the third paragraph in a positive note. Provide your phone number and tell them that you hope to hear back soon.
Customizing the Letter
My third challenge was how to customize the letter for a specific job posting.
Some customization techniques have already been shared in the previous section. Such as the strategy to demonstrate how specific skills match the job requirements. There’s a lot more you can do, however.
A few more customization techniques are as follows.
1. Tone of the letter
While you might assume that all cover letters should have a formal and serious tone, this is not necessarily true. In some cases, a more conversational tone may be preferred if the company has an informal work culture.
If you happen to be applying for an advertising, marketing or sales job, a funny cover letter might help you stand out among the crowd of applicants. So before writing your cover letter, judge the company culture from the job posting and by doing some research on the company.
Set the tone of the letter accordingly.
2. Overall frame of the letter
Most of us do a variety of things throughout our life and you are probably not an exception. You know your background well, but outsiders cannot understand you in the same way. You’d be surprised that even after you drop off a resume at someone’s office, they might struggle to judge whether you are appropriate for a position.
So, you need to take the initiative and frame your cover letter in a way such that the reader can quickly grasp your skills. This might sound easy but it is not, since you only have one opening paragraph to introduce yourself to the reader.
3. Length of the letter
Although I have discussed a three-paragraph cover letter above, the length of a cover letter can vary. For an entry level marketing position, for example, two short paragraphs are often all that is needed. If you are applying to teach at a local college, however, you may need to write five paragraphs.
This is because a college would like extra details about your teaching and publishing experience. So, I would recommend that you stick to a three-paragraph cover letter for most positions, but vary the length if it is appropriate for a position.
4. Use of colour and font
A black, 12-point, formal looking font (such as Times New Roman) is appropriate for most positions. In some cases, however, variations might win the day for you. Many hiring managers in the advertising, marketing or sales industry like to see more modern looking cover letters.
For example, you can use a trendy font like Book Antiqua or Trebuchet. You can, similarly, use a different color for the header section while maintaining a black font for the rest of the letter.
Standing Out from the Crowd
My fourth challenge was how to stand out among a pool of applicants. This was the most difficult challenge, because it is hard to get a definite solution. It is easy to stand out, of course, if you have skills that are so good that you automatically become a top-notch candidate.
What do you do, if you don’t have those exceptional skills?
A few techniques are as follows.
a) Use a catchy opening line
If the opening line of the letter is striking, the reader will perhaps pay a little more attention to your application. If you are a strong candidate in terms of skills, this may lead to an interview opportunity and even a job offer.
Be careful before writing an outrageous opening line, however, unless the job posting also has a conversational and humorous tone.
b) Be convincing
From the first line of the letter, your goal should be to convince the reader that you are indeed the right person for the job.
If you write the letter with a convincing tone, you are more likely to make the reader respect and trust you.
c) Highlight an unusual skill
Try to come up with a skill that you possess, which is unusual yet relevant to the position. In one sentence, highlight this skill along with an example of how you have applied it.
For example, you might have a passion for design and you may have created your high school logo. For an accounting position, you could add this skill and explain how this helps you format and colour code your spreadsheets.
d) Use quality stationery
If you are submitting a paper copy or printed application, make sure you choose high quality paper. This will increase the chances of standing out, because many applicants use plain white paper.
The cover letter is an opportunity to introduce yourself to the hiring manager. The resume has a more rigid format, so you do not have as much room for expression. It is, thus, important to make use of this letter and make a persuasive case for why someone should hire you.
Finally, make sure not to repeat the same information on the cover letter and resume. While the resume presents facts about yourself as a candidate, the cover letter should ideally take this information to the next level through elaboration and additional insights.