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What Makes a Good Cover Letter?

By Alison Green

At a time when most job seekers are wondering how to stand out in a crowded field of applicants, too many are overlooking one of the most effective ways to grab an employer’s attention: the cover letter.

Cover letters customized for the job are a powerful opportunity to make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what’s in your resume. That because for most jobs, picking the best candidate is rarely solely about skills and experience. Those obviously take center stage, but if that’s all that mattered, there would be no point in interviews; employers would make a hire based off of resumes alone. But in the real world, other factors matter too—people skills, intellect, communication abilities, enthusiasm for the job, and your personality. A good cover letter effectively conveys those qualities.

A good cover letter also does the following:

  • It shows personal interest in working for a particular organization and in a particular job, which makes it both more believable and more compelling. People respond when they feel a personal interest from you.
  • It engages the reader in a conversational tone; it’s not stiff or overly formal.
  • Perhaps most importantly, it provides information about the writer that will never be available from a resume—personal traits and work habits.

What a good cover letter doesn’t do is simply summarize the resume that follows. After all, with such limited initial contact, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you squander a whole page of your application on repeating the contents of the other pages. Instead, a great cover letter will provide a whole different type of information. For instance, if you’re applying for a secretarial job that requires top-notch organizational skills, and you’re so neurotically organized that you alphabetize your spices and color-code your bills every month, most hiring managers would love to know that about you. And that’s not something you’d ever put in your resume, but the cover letter is a perfect place for it.

Approaching your cover letter in this way practically guarantees that you’ll stand out from your competition because only a tiny fraction of candidates tailor their cover letters like this. After all, imagine screening resumes and having 200 basically qualified candidates, with little to differentiate them from one another. Wouldn’t you give an extra look at the one person who expressed a genuine enthusiasm for your company and didn’t just send you a generic form letter?

This approach does take longer than sending out the same form letter over and over, but a well-written cover letter that’s individualized to a specific opening is going to open doors when your resume alone might not have. These account for such a tiny fraction of applications that you’ll stand out and immediately go to the top of many hiring managers’ piles. Because of that, it’s likely you’ll find that five truly personalized, well-tailored applications will get you better results than 30 generic applications.

Now, there are certainly some hiring managers out there who will tell you that they don’t care that much about cover letters. But there are so many who do, so it’s well worth your effort to stand out in a crowded field.

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