Resumes are important when you are job hunting, but too many people forget to pay attention to the cover letter that goes with it. Generally the cover letter is the first thing a potential employer looks at in your application packet and they almost always look at it before they look at your resume.
Here are some common mistakes and omissions that you should remember and some important elements you should pay attention to:
- Be careful to make your letter gender-neutral. Using salutations like “Gentlemen” or “Dear Sir” can get you in trouble in a big hurry. It’s better to find out who will be reading your cover letter and use his or her name specifically. If not, stick to “To Whom It May Concern”.
- Customize each cover letter you send. With word processing software, it’s easy to revise titles, names, company names, dates and specific information like a mention of where you saw the job listing. Be sure you don’t accidentally use another company’s information in your letter. Check every version of the cover letter to make sure the information matches the company to which you are submitting your resume. Always include a couple of sentences written especially for each potential employer.
- Briefly tell your story in the letter. Describe your career as a series of experiences that paint a coherent picture of your working life. Telling stories are far more memorable than the recitation of mere facts and statistics, even if they are only a couple of sentences long.
- Use your cover letter to demonstrate how well you communicate in writing. The cover letter is the written equivalent of the famous “30 second elevator speech”. In a single page you have the task of telling your career life story. How well you do that, tells potential employers how well you’ll be able to tell about their products or services.
- Highlight your outstanding accomplishments, experiences or skills that relate to requirements of the job in question. The cover letter allows you to pick out things in your resume you want to call attention to.
- Keep your letter to a single page as nearly as possible. About three well-written paragraphs are ideal. For some reason two paragraphs seem like too few and four or more can seem too wordy and likely will not be read.
- Carefully follow all instructions the employer includes in the job posting. If the instructions say to send the resume to a particular person, address your cover letter to that person. Use the format they recommend. Do they want the cover letter and resume emailed? Should it be in PDF, Word or text format? Do they want you to give them your salary requirements? If so, be sure and include them. If you don’t follow obvious instructions like that, you can almost guarantee you won’t be hired.
- Don’t overdo the paper and graphics. Employers handle stacks of applications and resumes when they are looking to hire. It is okay for your cover letter and resume to be distinctive, but don’t overdo the graphics. It should look like a professional resume, not a sales flyer for Furniture Warehouse. Stick with simple white papers with black type. Readability is critical. Key information should be where it can be easily found.
Remember you only have a moment to tell your story before your cover letter and with it all that hard work you did on your resume get pitched on the “reject” pile. Your cover letter has to make the employer smile and reach for your resume to learn more about the interesting person who wrote that letter.