A while back I was asked to come up with my best cover letter tip as part of a Pongo Resume blog post about cover letters. Various experts (their word not mine ) offered their own top cover letter tips. Since Pongo only included a sample of each person’s response, here in full is my answer for my best cover letter tip to help you get past the wary resume screener and get that all-important first job interview:
QUESTION: “If you could offer job seekers just one cover letter tip, what would it be?”
MY RESPONSE: When I screen resumes, I often get long, heartfelt cover letters from people who want to tell me their life stories or focus on some aspect of who they are as a person. All this to get me to pick their resume. But are they really thinking about what the company wants or what they want the company to know about THEM?
It’s not the same thing.
In a recent cover letter (someone I’ll call Mary Z) went on and on about what a great learner she is and how much she loves to learn. As interesting as that may be, a good cover letter is about what you can do for the company. She forgot to even mention that. So my favorite cover letter tip is:
Help screeners quickly see how perfectly you match the job
The resume screener only has a few seconds to look through each cover letter and resume and make the all-important decision. Your job, first and foremost, is to grab their attention by making it easy for them. How? By tailoring your letter to their specific needs (rather than using some generic cover letter that’s usually a waste of the stamp you put on it.) Use the job requirements mentioned in the ad and show me where they intersect with your own job experience. The purpose of your cover letter is to help me see that intersection quickly and clearly!
Match your job skills to what they are looking for
After the basic intro paragraph, put together 2 or 3 concise fascinating sentences (or bullet points), zeroing in on those points in a way that will get me to stop in my tracks and take a longer look at your resume – maybe even for the second time if my first quick glance didn’t wow me. (Sometimes we do really quick screens and then come back to those that at least left us curious – in a good way. )
Your cover letter markets you to the company
Your cover letter is your best chance to sell yourself to the company. On average, you have about 8 seconds to get someone to decide whether to spend more time looking at what you have to offer. In the case of Mary Z, “the great learner” (whose resume got her into my “maybe” pile in the first pass), while love of learning is an admirable quality and might make a good point for her interview, nowhere in her heartfelt cover letter did she take to time to let me know she was actually thinking about the company’s needs. Instead, she left me the impression she thought we would be thrilled simply to know she likes to learn and the company’s needs don’t really matter. We weren’t and they do. (Makes a potential employer think that’s how she’d be as an employee.)
Now don’t get me wrong. Employers want their employees to be open to learning, but we’re not paying anyone just to learn; we need someone who fits the position well, has drive and knows how to make things happen. In your cover letter, you need to help us see why you are that person. What Mary didn’t tell me is what she already knows and how perfectly that fits in with the company’s needs. And that’s exactly what your cover letter should do if you want to make it past the initial screening.
So, as briefly and clearly as possible, use your cover letter to present yourself as someone with energy and determination who has precisely the experience the company is looking for. And save the other stuff – as interesting as it may be – for the interview, ok?
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