The best resume in the world may not do you any good if you're missing one critical element: a cover letter. But not just any cover letter will do. As the first impression you'll make with an employer in today's extremely competitive job market, an effective cover letter becomes a critical selling point. Here's what you need to know to write a cover letter than not only gets noticed, but earns a spot atop the pile.
More Than a Formality
Many job applicants think of cover letters as obligatory fluff: a meaningless, archaic precursor to the resume. This couldn't be further from the truth. When crafting your cover letter, think of it not as a necessary evil, but as an opportunity to enhance your resume and engage its readers.
Your cover letter sets the tone for everything that follows in the relationship between applicant and potential employer. The underlying theme of the most successful cover letters answers the question, "Why am I the right candidate for this job?"
Practice Your Matchmaking Skills
So now you understand why you're writing a cover letter, but what should it include? The answer is simple: that depends on the job. While a resume may be designed to show off your experience at large, a cover letter has a different intent: to make the case for why a company should hire you.
Creating a standard cover letter with a broad overview of your qualifications misses the point. The trick is to match the skills set forth in the job description with your own background and talents. Take a minute to identify specific experiences and achievements which demonstrate how you fulfill the job requirements. These are the bread and butter of your cover letter.
Remember, the job application process is ultimately a matchmaking game between you and prospective companies. The best way to make a match? Do your research to gain a better understanding of each company's needs, goals and values. Today's retention-minded companies aren't just looking for candidates who fit the job, but also who fit the overall corporate culture.
Doing your research also means getting all of the seemingly small things right -- from the title of the position to the contact person's name and title. This demonstrates both initiative and attention to detail.
Keywords matter, but only to a degree. Why? Because anyone can throw words onto a piece of paper.
What really matters is using these words to showcase why you're the right candidate for the position. Include keywords and key phrases, but be sure to link them to your experience and offerings in a meaningful way.
While your temptation may be to pack your cover letter with words and phrases lifted directly from the job description, practice restraint. After all, hiring managers see hundreds and thousands of resumes every year and can easily distinguish the generic from the great.
Also, keep in mind that your cover letter isn't meant to tell the whole story. Rather, it serves as an important introduction to what follows. Include only what truly matters, avoid bragging about unrelated abilities, and keep it to a concise one page. The best cover letters are not so much about showcasing a candidate's accomplishments, but about identifying a company's particular need and demonstrating your potential to fill it.
In an era in which 13 percent of recent college grads are unemployed, and 44 percent are "underemployed" -- meaning they are overqualified for the jobs they accept -- making a standout impression with employers can mean the difference between getting the job of your dreams and ending up as a troubling statistic. While a smart and comprehensive resume is a vital part of landing a job, a well-crafted cover letter is an equally valuable part of the equation.
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