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The Cover Letter Basics

The Cover Letter Basics

A badly written cover letter can hurt your chances for landing a great job. More than 76 percent of recruiters said in a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management that they would not consider a cover letter with typos, or at best they would toss the accompanying resume into a file rather than consider it for that current job.

It pays to pay attention to every detail in your cover letter.

Avoid Common Blunders

The most common cover letter mistakes are the following:

  • Name That Job: Recruiters often try to fill more than one job simultaneously.  After the salutation, state exactly which job you're applying for.
  • Form Letters: The point of a cover letter is to make a personal connection with the reader. Tailor your letter specifically to each company you send it to.
  • Don't Repeat Yourself: Don't regurgitate everything that's in your resume -- offer deeper insights into what your resume does not say. Provide an in-depth explanation of some of your key achievements at your last job, for instance, and how those accomplishments could help the company. Or tell a story about a tough problem you solved.
  • What's in It for Me? Don't say you are applying for the job because of the money, the travel opportunities, a better commute or anything else that concerns only you.
  • Balance Confidence and Humility: While you certainly want to appear competent, arrogance can turn a recruiter off: "Throw away all those other resumes -- I'm your guy!"  Show enthusiasm and a positive attitude, but don't overdo it.

Style Points

There are some other stylistic pointers to keep in mind:

  • Don't open with "To Whom It May Concern" -- get a name.
  • Highlight first and foremost your skills and experiences that match those the employer is seeking.
  • Open with a strong lead sentence.
  • Refer to the job ad and its specific language.
  • Compare your letter to a sample cover letter.
  • Offer to follow up with the recruiter -- and do it!
  • For electronic letters, attach your resume and make sure any links to professional samples you include work.
  • Proofread your work.

Before You Hit 'Send'

Proofread and spell-check your letter before emailing it. Now do it again. Ask a friend or family member to read your cover letter for typos and grammatical errors. (Do the same on your resume before you upload it.) If you're stuck on a grammatical point, consult a guide such as the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White or the Chicago Manual of Style.

Finally, send the letter to yourself as a test to check formatting. If you find errors, correct them and read it one more time -- it's easy to overlook a mistake, and you don't a want a typo to ruin all your hard work.

A cover letter may be a brief document, but it's an important one. It introduces you to the recruiter and interests him or her in reading another important document -- your resume.

[Excerpted from Your Next Move: Success Strategies for Midcareer Professionals by Marc Karasu and Dan Finnigan.]

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