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9 Expert Answers for “What Makes a Good Cover Letter?”

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Cover letters. We love to hate them and hate to write them. What makes a good cover letter? Are they even necessary anymore? Read on for the latest answers to your burning cover letter questions.

9 Expert Answers for “What Makes a Good Cover Letter?”

Second only to writing a resume, cover letters are probably the most difficult documents jobseekers ever write. We agonize over what information to include, tone to adopt, and format to present. The pressure to create the perfect cover letter can become overwhelming. So what are we to do? Below are answers to some commonly asked cover letter questions along with practical tips on how to create your best cover letter ever.

1. What is the purpose of a cover letter?

Think of a cover letter as a personal introduction. Imagine you are meeting your new boss in person. What do you want that person to know about you? Why are you interested in working for them? What do you think qualifies you for this position? A cover letter lets you move beyond the constraints of the resume format and highlight experiences, qualities, and attributes that may get lost in your resume. Its impact lies in your ability to customize and connect to the person who ends up reading your cover letter.

2. Do I really need to submit a cover letter for each position?

In almost all cases, yes! That said, the format of the cover letter may vary depending on the application process. Currently, there are a variety of methods employers use to receive job applications, including recruiters, online forms/applicant tracking systems, and email.

  • Recruitment firms rarely require a cover letter. Nonetheless, you should submit one anyway. The trick here is not to address your letter to the recruiter (who probably won’t read it). Instead, focus on reaching the hiring or business unit manager. If you are not applying for a specific position, provide a letter that addresses the job description of the type of position you are looking for.
  • When submitting resumes via an online form on a company website, there is usually an option to attach a cover letter. If not, there may be a text box where you are invited to provide additional information. Go ahead and cut and paste the body of your cover letter into this space, adjusting for length if needed.
  • If an employer requests you submit your resume by email, always attach a cover letter, even if they do not ask for one directly. You can increase the odds that someone will read it by summarizing the most important points in the body of the introductory email.

3. How long should a cover letter be?

Less than one page! Unless you are applying for an academic position, cover letters need to be short and sweet. Chances are, you are one of many applicants and have about 10 seconds to capture the attention of the hiring manager. Do not take this as a reason not to take great care in preparing your cover letter, though. If it comes down to you and a few others, your invitation to interview will hinge on the tie-breaking information you highlight in your cover letter.

4. Is the information the same as in the resume?

This is another common cover letter question. The answer is both yes and no. Like your resume, your cover letter is your opportunity to directly tie your skills and accomplishments to the position you are applying for. However, a cover letter also offers you the opportunity to highlight experience that may be lost or not even mentioned in your resume. Good information to include in your cover letter includes:

  • Relevant volunteer work. Cover letters are great places to include or expand on descriptions of projects or volunteer work specifically related to the position.
  • Personal commitment. Many times, we undertake work for deeply personal reasons. We become a lawyer because our dad was one or we get our degree to be a role model for our kids. Share your personal motivations for your career in your cover letter.
  • Interest in the hiring company. A lot of times we may admire a company and the work they do. A cover letter is a good time to talk about how you are excited to be a part of its innovations or how much you appreciate their commitment to the environment.
  • Explanation of gaps in job history or career changes. Everyone ends up with gaps, overlaps, and lateral movements in their resume if they work for long enough. Your cover letter is where you can address these issues and explain how you took time off to care for an ailing parent, travel the world, or whatever.
  • Qualification summary. Sometimes the experience and skills we want to highlight for a specific position are scattered throughout our resume. To make it easier for a hiring manager to quickly identify you meet a specific job requirement, you can combine these into one bullet point on your cover letter.

5. What is the best way to structure a cover letter?

There are exceptions to everything, but if you are looking for a quick rule of thumb, try diving your letter into 3-5 paragraphs. Each of these paragraphs should be no more than five sentences per paragraph. If you are listing more than two supporting ideas, use bullet points. Organize your information like this:

  • At the beginning of the cover letter, briefly recap the top requirements of the position and match them to your qualifications. Be specific and include the actual position title and company name. Also, include why you’re interested in applying for the position.
  • Next, summarize why this position is a good next step for you. How will the job use your current skills and experience to benefit the employer’s organization?
  • Include about three bullet points that highlight specific achievements in your past, or summarize your experience in areas most relevant to the position for which you are applying.
  • Lastly, briefly restate your experience and reiterate your enthusiasm for the position. Be sure to include a specific call to action such as indicating you will follow up or that you look forward to meeting them.

6. Do I need to add keywords?

Yes! Absolutely. Cover letters are treated like any other searchable text by applicant tracking software (ATS) programs, so the rules about keyword optimization in resumes also apply to cover letters. In fact, if you are just starting out or are changing career paths, cover letters can be a big help. For example, you can use the cover letter to add keywords that may not appear in your resume by drawing attention to personal interests, volunteer work, and other information that you would not normally include in a resume.

7. How should I format my cover letters?

The format of your cover letter, like that of your resume, conveys a visual impression of you to potential employers. Professionalism is really important here, so your letters should use a standard business format.

It is important to keep a few things in mind to optimize that impression and encourage review by human eyes.

  • Include a simple, but visually pleasing letterhead. Use the same header as your resume so the documents match. The header should include your name and contact information.
  • Margins and fonts should match your resume as well. Keep everything simple to minimize the possibility of the ATS scan misreading your text.
  • Insert the date, the hiring manager’s name and title, and the company address and flush it to the top left of the page. Try your best to find out the actual name and title of the person in charge of hiring, but if you cannot, it is okay to keep it generic.
  • Address the individual you are sending the letter to as “Dear Mr./Ms. …” There is no reason to take a chance using any other greeting unless you are absolutely positive that this type of formality will cause you not to get the job.
  • Sign off using “Sincerely” and use the same name and credentials as on the letterhead.
  • Indicate that you are attaching a resume under your name.

Even though certain conventions of business letters seem outdated, such as including the physical address or indicating “attachment” after the signature, it’s still important to include them. It is these elements that visually suggest this is a business letter and the employer should take it seriously.

8. What should the tone of my letter be?

While the letter’s format should remain professional, the tone can be more relaxed, as long as it matches the company culture where you are applying. There are lots of ways to get an idea of an appropriate tone for each letter. The best place to start is with the job ad. If the ad uses language that is very formal, the letter’s tone should be formal. However, formal does not mean boring. You still want a person to read the letter.

The reverse is also true. If the job ad is informal and uses casual language, your letter should match. Note that this is not the time to be “safe” and go the formal route. The job ad is purposefully incorporating a tone and language that reflects the company culture, and if you don’t reflect it back to them in your cover letter, it may not matter what your skills are.

9. Can I get a cover letter written by a professional?

Hopefully, this article has answered most of your cover letter questions, and you are ready to create your own document. However, if you still do not feel confident writing your own cover letter, have no fear! Virtual Vocations offers a cover letter writing service that crafts targeted cover letters that you can easily customize to each remote job on your radar. Visit our Career Services page for more details.

Which of these cover letter answers do you find most helpful? Do you have additional questions about cover letters or Virtual Vocations Career Services? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to let us know. We would love to know what you have to say!

iStock Photo Credit: 1. Urupong

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