Even in a blazing hot labor market, you can’t count on catching an employer’s attention when you apply for a job. So don’t skip the critical step that could make your application rise to the top of the pile.
Yes, sit yourself down and write an old-fashioned cover letter.
Letter-writing may sound quaint in an era of online job applications, but a cover letter is still a terrific opportunity to persuade a company to hire you. To make the most of that 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 aren’t tailoring it enough to your audience. Think about the hiring manager who will be reading your letter and what they’re looking for. Unless you consider their needs, you could end up sounding impressive but still not get an interview. You want their reaction to be, “Wow, this person is just what we’re looking for,” not “This person seems great, but I’m not sure why they’re applying for this job.”
A good cover letter begins by expressing enthusiasm for the mission of the organization you would be joining and the position you would be filling. The narrative that follows should be driven by the employer’s needs, not your personal ambitions or the highlights of your resume—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 learn how they talk about themselves, and what challenges or opportunities they are facing. Then draw specific connections to your background and experiences. Explain how you have demonstrated the qualities they are seeking or delivered a similar result in another context.
But put it in your own words. If you borrow too much language from the employer, you’ll come across like a robot.
Speaking of robots, make sure your resume shows that you meet every requirement for the position, because your first reader might be a computer. Many employers use artificial intelligence technologies to screen applicants, searching for keywords that match the skills, education and experience called for in the job posting.
Choose action-oriented words to describe your experience. You want the reader to picture you accomplishing things, instead of passively taking direction from others. Use words like built, conducted, created, developed, directed, guided, launched, led, managed, presented, supervised and trained.
Try to avoid weak words, such as assisted, helped, participated, responsible for, served, supported, and worked. You may have to use a few of these words, in situations where more action-oriented language wouldn’t be appropriate. That’s fine. Just look for opportunities to take credit. For example, identify projects you “created” or “led,” even if they were small ones. They demonstrate leadership and initiative, which are more compelling to a prospective employer than a detailed inventory of your daily responsibilities.
To keep yourself honest, imagine showing what you’ve written to someone who worked with you. Would you be worried about their reaction? If so, you need to dial back the credit-taking.
As you write, 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’re conducting a broader search.
How should cover letters and résumés look? A simple, consistent design is usually best. However, if you work in a creative field, expectations may be different. Consistency is still important, but it may be appropriate to use an unusual font, a more design-forward layout, or even an image. Take your cues from others in your profession.
And keep it short. It shouldn’t take more than a page to make a targeted, compelling case in a cover letter. Aim for a single-page resume as well, if you are early in your career. You don’t want the most relevant information to get overlooked because you 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 the occasional typo or misspelling once you have the job. A hiring manager is less likely to do so, because an error suggests that you are careless. If you don’t trust yourself to catch your mistakes, ask an eagle-eyed friend to review your application before you submit it.
A well-crafted cover letter can open doors that might otherwise have remained closed. This is particularly true in the early stages of your career, when you need a way to stand out from the crowd. But no matter how experienced you are, it’s always worth putting in 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 courses and workshops.