It’s a smart strategy in today’s job market, says Rob Parker, a managing director at recruiting and staffing firm Spherion, because of the extra care needed to distinguish yourself as a candidate when employers are awash in applications. “Cover letters are much more important than they used to be because of the tight labor market,” he says.
The cover letter can be a powerful document. A single sheet of paper, it can determine whether an employer will invite you to an interview in just three or four paragraphs.
A Sales Pitch -- And Much More
Why are cover letters so important? Your prose can determine whether a hiring manager will turn the page to view your resume and confirm that your background and skills match his needs; it can also serve as a de facto writing sample and glimpse at your ability to put sentences together without spelling or grammatical mistakes.
Apart from precision, recruiters and employers agree that the secret to effective cover letters is personalization. Successful job seekers, they say, use cover letters to illustrate what they know about the company they’re applying to and how their skills fit into the position being offered.
Gone are the days of printing off one letter and changing the recipient’s name. Instead, strong letters can help candidates connect with an employer before they ever set foot in the building.
A good cover letter -- all told, it should be no more than half of one page -- should open with an explanation of why the person is writing and what position they’re seeking. This is also the time to mention contacts within the company or the person who referred the candidate to the position. One way to open:
I’m writing in response to your company’s ad for a sales manager in the Washington Post on December 2, 2006. I’m also writing at the suggestion of Bob Jones, who recommended that I apply for the position.
The second paragraph should sell the candidate’s skills while explaining what the candidate knows about the employer, the position and how their skills fit the employer’s needs.
This means discussing both how a worker can help the company, explains Margie Decker, regional career development officer with Strayer University, rather than how a job is good for a job seeker’s career.
“The biggest mistake I see is [candidates] don’t think about how they relate to the organization,” Decker says. “It’s about the individual organization and not ‘me, me, me.’”
Some successful candidates use bullets to list their skills. Others have highlighted specific projects or experiences they’ve had that relate to the company’s position.