Even in a hot job market, you can’t count on attracting an employer’s attention when applying for a job. So don’t skip the critical step that could push your application to the top of the pile.
Yes, sit down and write an old fashioned cover letter.
Letter writing may seem strange in the age of online job applications, but a cover letter is still a great opportunity to persuade a company to hire you. To make the most of this opportunity, keep in mind that it’s not about you. It’s about how you can help them.
Here’s a simple test: do you always use the same cover letter? If so, you’re not tailoring it enough to your audience. Think about the hiring manager who will read your letter and what they are looking for. Unless you consider their needs, you might end up looking awesome but not getting an interview. You want their reaction to be, “Wow, this person is exactly what we’re looking for,” not “This person sounds great, but I don’t know why they’re applying for this job.”
A good cover letter begins by expressing your enthusiasm for the mission of the organization you are joining and the position you hold. The narrative that follows should be guided by the needs of the employer, not your personal ambitions or the highlights of your CV, which is already available, after all.
How do you know what the employer needs? Read the job posting carefully. Review their website and social media accounts to find out how they talk about themselves and what challenges or opportunities they face. Then, make specific connections to your background and experiences. Explain how you have demonstrated the desired qualities or provided a similar result in another context.
But put it in your own words. If you borrow too much language from the employer, you’ll look like a robot.
Speaking of bots, make sure your resume says you meet all the job requirements, because your first reader might be a computer. Many employers use artificial intelligence technologies to screen candidates, searching for keywords that match the skills, education, and experience requested in the job posting.
Choose action-oriented words to describe your experience. You want the reader to imagine you doing things, instead of passively following directions from others. Use words like built, directed, created, developed, directed, guided, initiated, directed, managed, presented, supervised, and trained.
Try to avoid weak words, such as assisted, aided, participated, responsible for, served, supported, and worked. You may need to use a few of these words in situations where more action-oriented language would not be appropriate. It is very good. Just look for opportunities to take credit for it. For example, identify projects that you “created” or “led”, even if they were small. They show leadership and initiative, which are more compelling to a potential employer than a detailed inventory of your day-to-day responsibilities.
To be honest, imagine showing what you wrote to someone who worked with you. Would you be worried about their reaction? If this is the case, you must call back the credit outlet.
When writing, avoid insider jargon. Explain past job responsibilities using language that would make sense to people outside your organization and even outside your field, if you search more broadly.
What should cover letters and CVs look like? A simple, consistent design is usually best. However, if you work in a creative field, expectations may be different. Consistency is always important, but it may be appropriate to use an unusual font, a more edgy layout, or even an image. Take inspiration from others in your profession.
And be brief. It shouldn’t take more than a page to make a focused and compelling case in a cover letter. Also aim for a one-page resume, if you’re just starting out in your career. You don’t want the most relevant information to be overlooked because you’ve drowned it in a sea of words.
Finally, make sure your cover letter and resume are error-free. Your boss or a client will forgive you for the occasional typo or spelling mistake once you get the job. A hiring manager is less likely to do this because a mistake suggests you’re negligent. If you don’t trust yourself to spot your mistakes, ask an eagle-eyed friend to review your application before submitting it.
A well-crafted cover letter can open doors that would otherwise remain closed. This is especially true early in your career, when you need a way to stand out from the crowd. But regardless of your experience, it’s always worth spending the time to make the best possible case for hiring you.
Martha B. Coven is the author of “Writing on the Job: Best Practices for Communicating in the Digital Age”. She is a visiting professor and lecturer at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, where she teaches writing classes and workshops.
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