How to write a great cover letter

Despite debate about its relevance, a cover letter is still a necessity for any serious job seeker. Here's how to write a great one.

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Recruiters, hiring managers and other hiring decision makers, not to mention job seekers themselves, have debated for years: is a cover letter really necessary? The answer is a resounding 'Yes,' even if no one reads it.

A cover letter is a great way for job seekers to focus on what is truly important to them in their career, and to address that in a conversational tone that is personalized to the specific job they're applying to, says Caitlin Sampson, Certified Professional Resume Writer and career consultant with Regal Resumes.

"A customized cover letter can add personalized communication to your job application, it can explain any areas of question on your resume, and it can provide a tailored outline as to why you would be a fit for a specific opportunity and company. A cover letter creates a good first impression by showing you have researched the target company while expressing your passion for the specific opportunity and it can explain 'red flags' within your resume, like a gap in your career history," Sampson says.

A cover letter should confirm for the reader your suitability for the role and make them want to read your resume as a next step. And it's a great opportunity to explain any concerns your resume raises; frequent job-hopping or gaps in employment, explains Sampson.

"It is always better to not leave anything up to the employer to guess. If you have concerns when you evaluate your resume then the recruiter or hiring manager will likely have them too. When you leave it up to the recruiter to come up with an explanation for things such as employment gaps or frequent lay-offs, chances are the worst will be assumed. You can use the cover letter to guide opinion by presenting the facts," Sampson says.

What's the best way to guide that opinion and emphasize the facts that will get you hired? Here are some expert tips on writing a cover letter.

 1. Let Your Personality Shine

The cover letter presents an opportunity to let your personality shine through. This can be important when a recruiter or hiring manager is wading through dozens of resumes looking for job candidates who will be a good fit culturally within the company.

2. Better Explain Your Suitability for the Role

The cover letter can be used to further explain your qualifications and how they match the specific job you're interested in. You should carefully review the job description and make sure to include important keywords in your cover letter, says Sampson.

3. Show You've Done Your Homework

"The cover letter should be short, but make sure those few paragraphs are packed with essential information about you," Sampson says. Make sure to highlight the efforts you've made learning about the company and the opportunity.

4. Keep it Short and Sweet

While a cover letter doesn't need a rigidly formal tone, it should remain professional. While you can add more personal touches and expound a bit on your experience and qualifications, make sure it doesn't exceed one page in length.

5. Pay Attention to Detail

Everyone makes mistakes, but making one in a job search can kill any chance you might have to land a new position. "In a previous recruiting position, I came across a cover letter addressed to another employer. Any excitement I had about that applicant dissolved instantly; that mistake told me that the applicant did not take the necessary time and pay attention to details," says Sampson.  

6. Address it Correctly

You should send the cover letter and your resume to the person making the hiring decision when possible, according to experts. Often you can find that person's name on the job posting, the application, the firm's website, or on the company social media profile. Making sure you're sending your qualifications to the right people can increase your chances of being seen.

7. Explain a Relocation

If you are applying to a role in a new geographic location, use your cover letter as an opportunity to explain why you are looking to move and make sure to express your excitement about the possibility of relocation.

8. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

In case you missed it, you should proofread, proofread, proofread any correspondence you are sending to a potential employer, especially something as important as your cover letter and your resume. Make sure punctuation, grammar and spelling are all correct, as well as double-checking details such as the employer, address, and job title you're applying for.

9. Use Your Manners

At the end of your cover letter, you should thank the recruiter, hiring manager or decision maker for reading it and for looking over your resume, says Sampson. This is also a great place to ask for an opportunity to learn more about the position and to suggest an in-person interview.

10. Position Yourself for Success

Most importantly, remember that writing a cover letter is about more than just fulfilling a requirement, says Stephen Van Vreede, Personal Brand Strategist, CRW and Job Search Agent for IT, Technical and STEM careers with ITTechExec and co-author of the upcoming book, 'Uncommon: Common Sense but Uncommon Knowledge From Today's Leading Entrepreneurs and Professionals to Help You Lead an Extraordinary Life of Health, Wealth and Success.'

A cover letter is the best way to demonstrate the unique value you offer to organizations, and to highlight that you're knowledgeable about their opportunities and challenges.

"If you know who they are, what they do, what they value, and what problems they are experiencing, you can position yourself as someone that can solve those problems. The best part, it usually only takes a few minutes of research for each company if you know where to look," Van Vreede says.

This story, "How to write a great cover letter" was originally published by CIO.

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