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The Art of the Cover Letter

Once you’ve perfected your résumé, resist the temptation to send it out. The résumé, as stated earlier, provides prospective employers and clients an overview of your qualifications, but it offers no introduction. The cover letter that accompanies your resume serves as the polite introduction. As you may have guessed, there’s an art to creating a powerful, persuasive cover letter.

Just as a Google search for tips and techniques to create an outstanding résumé yields a bewildering and overwhelming array of results, so does the hunt for tips and techniques for writing a cover letter. Writing for Forbes, Seth Porges’ article “6 Secrets to Writing a Great Cover Letter” hones in on useful advice that goes deeper than most such articles. Like Porges’ article, this one focuses on the nuances of an excellent cover lever.

This is not a résumé

The cover letter accompanies your résumé. Assume the hiring professional can read and avoid the urge to write in paragraph form what you already present on the résumé. Use this opportunity to show that you understand the job and the industry and know a bit about the hiring company. For instance, jot down the company’s criteria for successful applicants. If the company wants someone who can manage clients’ financial portfolios, then explain how you did that for other clients. The résumé only shows you did it; it doesn’t necessarily speak to how you did it, what processes or programs you used, or the results of your good financial management skills. Use this opportunity to show that you understand the job.

Cover letters offer job applicants the opportunity to display their personalities. The use of language and the tone of your letter will tell the hiring professional a lot about the kind of person you are and the kind of employee you might be. It’s the company’s first clue as to whether you’ll fit in with their corporate culture. Even working remotely, corporate culture affects interaction among colleagues.

Just as you must constrain the length of your résumé, brevity helps restrain the length of the cover letter. Shorter is better. Less is more. You know that mantra. Never extend your cover letter beyond a single page. Doing so indicates that you cannot explain yourself in succinct terms.

Brush up on your grammar

“I’m not a writer” does not excuse the failure to employ good grammar and correct punctuation in your cover letter. The hiring professional reviewing your cover letter might not notice that you used a plural pronoun in reference to an unspecified singular person–a common practice accepted by the Associated Press to maintain gender neutrality–but he or she will notice incorrect verb-noun combinations, inappropriately placed apostrophes, improper capitalization, and misspelled words.

As in the résumé, focus on using active voice. Be succinct and direct. Inform and engage. If you’re not sure how to spell something, look it up and default to U.S. language conventions if you are submitting to a U.S.-based company. Unless otherwise noted, avoid British, Australian, Canadian, and European English conventions. That means using “while” instead of “whilst” and “color” instead of “colour.” Integration of non-U.S. conventions makes your content sound pretentious, not erudite.

Employ jargon sparingly, but do use terms common to the industry if only to show that you speak their language. You need not write with scholarly erudition or litter your letter with industry-specific acronyms to demonstrate your knowledge. Jargon does not refer to slang, which should be avoided. Think of it as using keywords and employ SEO best practices: don’t engage in keyword stuffing. If the industry term or keyword doesn’t fit naturally into the sentence, then it doesn’t belong there. Again, less is more. As the old Brylcreem ad used to quip, “A little dab’ll do ya.”

A word on punctuation: an apostrophe never indicates a plural. Never. The rancher has horses, not horse’s. The grocery store sells tomatoes, not tomato’s. If you’re not sure whether your complex compound sentence deserves a semicolon, then figure out a way to restate it so the semicolon definitely becomes unnecessary. The rule of thumb regarding commas is, “When in doubt, don’t.”

What to include, or not

If possible, find out that hiring professional’s name and address that person directly in the salutation of the letter. That may entail checking the company’s website or LinkedIn page, or even calling the company to ask for that person’s name. If the name proves elusive, then default to “Dear Hiring Manager” or equivalent.

Alison Doyle’s article “Top 10 Cover Letter Writing Tips” suggests, “Generally, don’t apologize for anything in your cover letter. If you are lacking a required skill or degree, don’t mention it. That will only highlight what you don’t have.” Do, however, consider explaining any recent or extended employment gaps that may catch a hiring manager’s attention. A compassionate recruiter or hiring manager will understand taking a few months off to care for a dying relative, the weeks spent recuperating from an injury, an extended, once-in-a-lifetime vacation, time taken to tend to family matters, or even simply being laid-off and out of work. In that last scenario, show that you maintained your skills through volunteer work, participation in a professional association, or something else that doesn’t allude to retreating into a cave to wallow in self-pity.

Although it used to be common practice to state in a cover letter that you’re writing to the hiring manager to apply for a certain position which you heard about from a specific source, that convention has fallen by the wayside. The absence of that unnecessary introductory material means you have another inch of page space in which to impress a potential employer.

Ignore that last paragraph if the position came to your notice through a referral. In that case, identify the contact person who referred you by his or her name and title to establish a mutual, professional connection and serve as an unofficial reference or recommendation. After all, that person wouldn’t have suggested you apply if he or she didn’t think you unsuitable for the job, right?

The cover letter is a formal business letter with a standard format that job applicants are advised to follow. In the interest of “less is more,” and brevity, do not repeat information already present in the resume, except your contact information. Contact information refers to your mailing address, telephone number, and email address; Christian Eilers advises job applicants leave their social media links and website out. Your resume should already have that information.

Open with a strong declaration. Especially effective in a strong opening sentence, include the company’s name. Show that the letter is customized for that specific person, that specific company, and that specific job. Also, focus on what the company needs and how you can fill that need. In short, tell them of the advantages to them of hiring you, because they know you want the job. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have bothered sending them the cover letter and resume.

Tell your story

The cover letter is your narrative. It tells your story while addressing the company’s need. Your story must ring of truth and has no room for exaggeration, falsehood, desperation, false humility, or braggadocio. As Eilers states, “Show interest, but don’t turn them off–this is one of life’s many dances, like dating.” The cover letter serves as your first foray into a possible courtship. A good cover letter expresses your attraction and presents that interest in such a way as to encourage reciprocation, to convince the company that they’re attracted to you, too.

Once your résumé and cover letter secure the company’s interest, the next step is the interview. The interview also affords you an opportunity to tell your story, engage in the dance, and explore the attraction to determine whether it’s mutual. This is where you and the employer determine whether the courtship develops into a real relationship.