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Job Search Tips: How to Write an Effective Cover Letter

12/01/2011 1:59 pm

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So you’ve got your college degree (or you’re working on it). You’ve got the confidence and skill to be an outstanding employee in your field. You’ve got the drive, the ambition, the goals, and the energy.

Now you just need the attention of employers.

The most important tool in your arsenal for catching the interest of your next boss is the notoriously important – and sometimes tricky – cover letter. As soon as you’ve expressed interest in a job, the employer starts asking, “Why should I hire you?” Your cover letter lets you begin answering that question at the outset – if you do it right. If you do it wrong, you miss an important opportunity and may lose out as a candidate.

What author Nicholas Sparks has said about query letters in the publishing industry holds true for your cover letter. It’s your sales pitch. “It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up.”

So how do you avoid messing it up? More importantly, how do you nail the perfect cover letter that will let employers know what a catch you are, and get you in the door so you can wow them with your interview?

What to include in a cover letter

  • Target each position/employer specifically and directly.
  • Keep it to one page.
  • Proofread – don’t just rely on spell check.
  • Show what you can do for the employer.
  • Find the name of the hiring manager and address him or her by name in the greeting.
  • Make sure your cover letter matches your resume in terms of both formatting and style.
  • Capture the reader’s attention early on.
  • Be proactive. Let them know you’ll follow up – and then do. And always say “thank you.”

What to avoid in a cover letter

  • Don’t send a resume without a cover letter.
  • Don’t be boring, especially in the first paragraph.
  • Don’t use clichés.
  • Don’t cut and paste from your resume. The content needs to be fresh.
  • Don’t make it about yourself – make it about aligning yourself and the employer’s needs. Focus on the employer’s needs.
  • Don’t use gender-biased salutations. Don’t start with the old-fashioned “Dear Sirs.” Ideally, you’ll be able to address the hiring manager by name. If not, use “Dear Hiring Manager.”
  • Don’t write a one-size-fits-all cover letter and use it for all your applications.
  • Don’t discuss benefits or salary, unless specifically required in the job listing.
  • Don’t leave it up to the employer to take the next step.

It’s hard work. It’s a lot to think about. We feel your pain. Writing a great cover letter may feel like just one more time-consuming, stressful component to an already time-consuming, stressful job search. But although you may have spent countless hours and brain cells on your job search, remember that with each new application, this is the first time this particular employer is “seeing you.” They don’t care how many letters you’ve already had to write, how long and hard you’ve been working on finding a job – they just want to know what you can offer to them as an employee.

As tired as you may be, you simply can’t afford to take shortcuts through a single cover letter.

The WGU Alumni & Career Services Career Café webinar series recently tackled writing a killer cover letter. Alumni & Career Services mentor Jessica Mitchell goes into great detail about these tips and more, as well as exploring the different styles and types of cover letters and helping you determine which approach is the right fit for your job search.

Check out the free “Cover Letters” webinar.

What are your cover letter tips and tricks? What do you make sure to include in every cover letter? Do you have an awesome intro sentence or a pitfall you’ve learned to avoid? Share it with us in the comments below!

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