11 Essential Cover Letter Tips

Published: Oct 21, 2015

 Career Readiness       Education       Finance       Grad School       Interviewing       Job Search       Resumes & Cover Letters       Technology       
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Your cover letter is just as important as your resume and deserves just as much attention. It’s the first correspondence read by a prospective employer, and a badly written cover letter won’t get you in the door, or even your resume read.

Typically, a cover letter has three short paragraphs. Each has no more than three sentences. The first paragraph is your chance to get the reader's attention. This is the ideal place to say that you offer something not seen from the typical applicant.

The second paragraph details your work experience and qualifications. Academic honors are relevant. Describe at least one professional achievement that might be directly applicable to their firm.

The third paragraph is your call to action. Tell the reader the position you're looking for, thank them for their time, and, if you're not responding to a specific job posting, don't forget to ask for an interview.

Note that most cover letters get about 20 seconds of review. So, very quickly, you have to make your case for why you're the right person for the job. But don't fear the cover letter. Common cover letter mistakes are easy to avoid. And creating a great one isn't difficult—as long as you follow these tips.

1. Avoid generic salutations. Show that you've done your research by always using the hiring manager’s name in the salutation of your cover letter, not a generic "Dear Sir" or "To whom it may concern." Many company web sites, as well as LinkedIn, feature biographical info on recruiters or hiring managers, so it’s easy to find contacts these days.

2. Never use the same cover letter to apply for multiple jobs. Each cover letter should be specially geared toward landing one particular position at one particular company. Consequently, it needs to emphasize the aspects of your education, personality, skills, and experience that make you the best candidate for the job. Make the employer feel special by demonstrating your enthusiasm for the firm and your knowledge of its recent activities. You could say something like, "I have followed your company since I was in college, and I am very impressed with XYZ strategy or your LBO of XYZ company. I would love the chance to become part of your team and play a significant role in future acquisitions."

3. Skip the generic recitation of skills. If the job listing asks for a detail-oriented analyst with leadership ability, for example, don't just repeat these words, but provide short examples of how they apply to you. For example, detail-oriented = "In college, I organized a financial career seminar with 20 speakers and 500 attendees," and leadership skills = "I served as vice president of my college's MBA Student Private Equity Club."

4. But use keywords that match those listed in the job announcement. For example, if you're applying for an analyst position that requires a master's degree in quantitative finance, then your résumé or cover letter should include the terms "master's degree" and "quantitative finance." If you don't use keywords that match the job listing, you run the risk of your submission being ignored by cover letter/resume-scanning software.

5. Avoid using industry jargon. Some people who review your application materials may be unfamiliar with industry lingo. To avoid using jargon, McKinsey advises applicants to "ask friends from different backgrounds to read your resume/curriculum vita and point out any areas that sound confusing."

6. Keep it short and well-organized. "Organization and brevity are just as important in [your cover letter] as in your resume," advises Bank of America. "Put yourself in the recruiters’ shoes: they will see hundreds of cover letters. Prioritize your points, cover each one in order, and do not dwell on any of them."

7. Your cover letter needs to be error free. Errors suggest that you're not detail oriented and don't take the job-search process seriously. With so many people vying for each position, one simple mistake on your cover letter or resume could disqualify you from consideration. Avoid this fate by proofreading your documents multiple times and also having trusted friends or a career counselor at your college review them.

8. Don't lie. No firm wants to hire someone whom they can't trust. If you become a serious candidate for the job, your credentials will be examined closely, and being caught in a lie will, in most cases, disqualify you from consideration for the position you're seeking. Also note: many firms conduct background checks and investigate statements you make on your application materials.

9. Use the cover letter to demonstrate your excellent communication skills. Many job listings mention these skills as an important quality for a candidate. So use clear, concise language, and mix in a little of your personality. Shorter is better; you need to grab HR managers' attention quickly by providing compelling reasons why you should be hired. Proofread your cover letter until it’s perfect. Then ask at least two other people to review your document as well.

10. Use numbers and hard data. In addition to interpersonal, communication, and other types of skills, you might also want to mention your high GPA, or provide other hard data that's applicable. Numbers stand out and are easy to remember.

11. Follow the rules. If the job description says your cover letter should feature the job listing number and be submitted digitally only, you need to do this. Failure to follow the rules suggests that you're not detail oriented and not good at following instructions, and thus not a good candidate for the job.

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