The cover letter is a hiring manager’s first line of defense. Some of the more seasoned professionals look at your letter first because it can be the most accurate gauge of how much effort you’ve put into trying to land that job. A good recruiter can tell whether you’ve taken the time to pay attention to details, polish a coherent narrative, and give a glimpse of who you are as a person and an employee. Almost any recruiter can tell when you’ve cut corners or made (and missed) careless mistakes.
Even if you’ve written a cover letter for the ages, there are still subtle pitfalls and hidden opportunities for finesse you may be blind to.
1. Get the name right
This may seem like an insultingly obvious point. But so many letters open with generic “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern,” rather than being addressed to a particular person.
Step one: figure out the person who will actually be doing the hiring and screening for your position. Step two: make doubly—then triply—sure you’ve spelled their name 100% correctly. It’s not hard to get that detail right and it will save the hiring manager the wince when they see a letter or two out of place. You never know what makes the difference in whether or not you make it out of resume pile limbo.
2. Strike a balance between style and substance
So many cover letters open with snooze-worthy first lines. “I write to express my keen interest in the X position.” You can do better than this. Try something that will hold any reader’s interest, but be careful—too interesting and you run the risk of it not transitioning well into the rest of your cover letter. Try to find a dazzling opening sentence that seamlessly segues into discussion of your professional qualifications and manages to add insight and context to your application. It’s a tough note to strike, but can really help you knock it out of the park.
3. Strike a balance between flattering them and selling yourself
It’s important to convey your genuine interest in the company, and to hit home just how much you want to be a part of the team there. Flattery, when done correctly, can get you everywhere. Don’t forget, however, to include some insight into yourself. That is, after all, what they’re looking for. Playing only to their egos will often backfire.
4. Be humble, but also brag
There’s a difference between bragging, humblebragging, and being overly humble. And there’s a sweet spot where they overlap. If you have holes in your application, or there are certain qualifications you lack, it’s important to mention these things and be proactive. But don’t give too much space on the page to what you don’t have. Move on quickly and focus on what you can offer to the company, and why you’re uniquely qualified and perfect for the job—even without that one specific skill you don’t quite have yet.
If you’re at this stage, you already have a good letter. Don’t be scared to take it that extra mile. And, when in doubt, ask. Generous, smarter-than-you friends and paid professionals are out there to help.
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