Cheat Sheet to Make the Most of Your Cover Letter

If you’re a job seeker, you probably already know it is essential to follow the application instructions to the letter when responding to a job posting.

Although it’s true that many cover letters aren’t read, if a company asks candidates to supply a cover letter along with a resume, you should do so. This cover letter gives you the opportunity to impress a hiring manager by showing him or her that you read the job ad closely and that you are an excellent fit for the job they need to fill. Don’t blow it.

While it may sound daunting to write a custom letter each time you apply for a job, let me assure you that once you have written your first letter, you can quickly and easily modify that letter over and over again. Here are my tips for getting more mileage from a cover letter.

Fine-Tune It

Every time you apply for a job, revise your basic letter, adapting it to the new job posting.

When you are updating the name of the company and its mailing address, double check that you’ve corrected all mentions of the company name and job title throughout the body of the letter as well. Double check the date, too.

If you don’t already have it, try to find the name of the hiring manager. It may take some digging, but most candidates will not go to the trouble of finding this information, so it’s a great way to stand out. If you can’t find a name, just leave the salutation line out completely.

It’s also best to specify in your cover letter the exact job ID or requisition number, if applicable, just so it’s clear exactly which position you are applying for. “I’d like to be considered a candidate for the position of Virtual Assistant (Job ID# 673490) in your public relations department.”

People Matter

Always adapt the wording based on who the recipient is. How you approach an organization that’s hiring directly will be different than how you approach a recruiter or a headhunter, and you’ll want your word choices to reflect that.

Ask yourself if there is any name-dropping you can do. Do you have an inside connection who suggested you apply for this job? Do you know someone who works at the company who could vouch for you? Don’t assume name-dropping is crass or creepy. You’re actually helping the hiring people get a handle on you. “John Smith, my classmate from Stanford, suggested I contact you about the position that just opened in your research department.”

A word of caution about naming names: Check with your contacts to be sure they are aware that you’ll be mentioning them in a letter.

If applicable, say why you are applying for a position with this particular organization. Ideally, you could say something about the organization’s history and direction, that you share common values or worldview. What you want to do is assure the hiring manager that you will fit in well with the corporate culture. “My interest in microbiology goes back to my early childhood when I regularly visited my dad in his lab at M.I.T. Today, as a microbiologist myself, your company’s commitment to research is…” You get the idea.

Reframe Yourself

Review your letter, and if necessary, re-arrange or rephrase the skills and experience you’ve listed so that they align more closely to what interests you about the position, keeping in mind the skills and experience mentioned in the job ad and the nature of the company.

If there is anything special about the company that attracts you to it, whether geographic location, industry reputation, product line, or similar trait, highlight your interest or connection. “I lived in Boulder all through my college years, and loved everything about it.” Or, “I was very impressed with your CEO’s talk at last year’s IEEE conference.”

Make sure your letter reflects that you possess the basic skills and qualities every employer looks for—communication skills, problem-solving skills, organizational skills, and enthusiasm.

Extending Your Reach

If you want to press your cover letter into more service, that’s doable as well.

For example, use it to cold-contact companies where you’d really like to work. Since you won’t have a job description to base your comments on, you’ll have to write about how you see a role for yourself within the company. First, carefully research its products or services so you can accurately demonstrate your knowledge of the company’s mission and style. “I hope you’ll keep me in mind if an opening comes up in the sales department because my experience as a copywriter and IT person dovetails nicely with how your online catalogs are structured.”

You can also tweak your basic cover letter to approach people you hope can help in your job search, such as mentors, information sources, or networking contacts. When this is the case, you should be brief and friendly, but specifically ask for something such as a face-to-face meeting or a referral. “I enjoyed meeting you and hope I see you at the next foodservice convention, but meanwhile, let’s get together to see if we can help each other’s career.”

If you customize it appropriately, your cover letter can be useful when you want a raise or promotion within the firm where you currently work. The outline is the same. It’s a review of what qualifies you for a specific position, followed by a reminder to HR or your boss of what you’ve accomplished as an employee there. “In the seven years I’ve worked for Acme Software, I’ve built the testing department from four employees to nine, while reducing our overhead by 45%. I’d like the opportunity to duplicate those results in our social media outreach.”

When you know how to make minor adjustments to your cover letter, it transforms itself into a powerful job search tool. I can get you started with a solid letter that will open doors as is, and can easily be molded into other adaptations. Contact me to schedule a free phone consultation.

Mir Garvy

Author: Mir Garvy

I’ve written resumes for 2,000+ job seekers just like you—and helped my clients land jobs with companies like Amazon, SAS, Google, Duke University, Travelocity, Cisco Systems, GlaxoSmithKline, Expedia, and IBM.