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The New Rules on How to Write a Cover Letter

Human resources and hiring experts offer tips and tricks that will allow your cover letter lead to your next great job.

Cover letters matter

“There seems to be a lot of talk lately about whether cover letters are still an essential part of the hiring process or whether social media screening has taken over the function of providing a picture about the candidate. I wouldn’t count out cover letters yet—not by a long shot.

“From a recruitment standpoint, a cover letter reveals a lot about a job seeker’s attention to detail, communication style, personality, and how much research someone has done on a company. Even if initial recruiters don’t spend time reviewing them, it’s almost guaranteed that a hiring manager will, so having a polished cover letter will help set a candidate apart from the competition—especially if others haven’t bothered to include one.”—Melina Gillies, HR Specialist at SalesUp! Business Coaching

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Use keywords

“If you want to know how to write a cover letter that gets noticed, the first thing you need to think about is using keywords that the software can use to signal you as relevant for further review. If the job posting uses the word ‘stakeholder,’ then include ‘stakeholder’ [in your letter]. For keywords, scan the top three to five bullets of the job posting’s duties, responsibilities, and requirements, or determine what language is used both in the job posting as well as on the company’s website in order to match your submission to their lingo.”—Nicole Littmann, Aurelian CoachingFind out the 20 words you shouldn’t include in your cover letter.

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Consider your audience

“If the cover letter is being submitted to a posted job, then a traditional cover letter may be appropriate. However, if the job description requires creativity, soft skills, or you have insights into the reader, then storytelling can create a stronger impact. Instead of the traditional approach, namely sharing examples of job skills and performance achievements, share a story on the motivators or soft skills which drove your success. Instead of just facts and figures, the story shares more about your personality and decision-making style. Leave the practical skills and awards for the resume.”—Elizabeth Malson President of Amslee Institute. 

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Take the time to customize

“Nothing will elicit an eye roll faster than providing a cover letter which is written like it could be for any business on the planet—or worse—referencing another business in the text. Yes, it’s extra work, but if you’re wondering how to write a cover letter that is impactful, targeting the company you are applying for and the responsibilities of the position will pay dividends.”—Melina Gillies, HR Specialist at SalesUp! Business CoachingDon’t miss these 10 cover letter disasters that won’t get you in an interview.

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Do a social media scrub

“Be sure to update your social networks to ensure you have the latest information that will correlate with your cover letter—and perhaps do a review to make sure your public persona is one you don’t mind potential employers having access to.”—Melina Gillies, HR Specialist at SalesUp! Business Coaching

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Include all of your contact info

“Make sure all your contact information is included, especially for emailed cover letters as employers may print or save the information and delete the email.”—Elizabeth Malson President of Amslee Institute

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Make sure it can stand alone from your resume

“Many people make the mistake of having their resume be dependent on their cover letter. But what if your resume and cover letter are separated? Your resume could be doomed if it cannot stand on its own. Have your cover letter be a strong value-added document on its own, independent of the resume and vice versa.”—Lisa Rangel, Chameleon Resumes

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Be concise

“Keep it short with an introduction and no more than two paragraphs as cover letters are often skimmed, not read.”—Elizabeth Malson President of Amslee Institute. Learn how to look for a job while you still have one.

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Get personal

“If you have a personal tie or story to tell which links you to the brand or company you want to work for—tell it! Prospective employers are looking for passion and will almost always consider it in the absence of some of the other requirements asked for, so don’t be afraid to let us know that a product or a service has shaped your outlook in some way.”—Melina Gillies, HR Specialist at SalesUp! Business Coaching

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Address your cover letter to an actual person

“This is important for people who want to learn how to write a cover letter: Do not send it ‘To Whom It May Concern’ or ‘Hiring Manager.’ Do the homework and research who you should be addressing your cover letter to for your submission.”—Lisa Rangel, Chameleon Resumes

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Specify how you found the person that you are emailing

“Most people have an instinctive response like, ‘How did they get my name?’ when receiving an unsolicited, yet personalized inquiry. To be sure your email is received positively, indicate early on in the cover letter email how you came to discover the person in order to put the receiving party at immediate ease to continue reading. Whether it was research on LinkedIn or your former co-worker that led you to reach out to this person or you have mutual connections, informing the recipient of how your email landed in their inbox makes the person feel better.”—Lisa Rangel, Chameleon Resumes.Find out the one secret you need to know to write a perfect cover letter.

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Write a cover letter even if they don’t want one

“Some organizations may specifically ask that you not submit a cover letter, or an applicant tracking system may not accept a cover letter as an additional upload. In those two instances, I still recommend writing a cover letter—even if you are the only one who ever sees it. Taking the time to complete this letter allows you to craft a powerful message which can help you define why you are perfect for a job. This will be essential information to articulate well during a job interview. It’s one of the best preparation measures you can make.”—Melina Gillies, HR Specialist at SalesUp! Business CoachingHere are the 10 best careers to pursue right now.

Business, career and placement concept - caucasian businessman 30s negotiating with male employer and reading his resume, during job interview in officeDean Drobot/Shutterstock

Help the reader connect the dots

“Your cover letter needs to succinctly explain why the reader should take action and call you for an interview or forward you to the right person to bring you in for a discussion. Use bullets, and no more than three to five, to outline how you are a fit for the prospective position.”—Lisa Rangel, Chameleon Resumes

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Open strong

“The opening statement needs to immediately show the reader that a job candidate has done research on the company. Make the hiring manager want to keep reading. A good cover letter talks about the company and should also include a hypothesis for why the company is seeking a new candidate. The company obviously has a need and it’s to the candidate’s benefit to figure out what the issues are (or make the best guess) and then demonstrate, with his or her own examples, why she is worth speaking to in an interview.”—Jeff Magnuson, Jeff Magnuson Consulting

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.ESB Basic/Shutterstock

Brand yourself

“Most people don’t realize that their cover letter can be used as an effective way of branding themselves. In fact, most people never really think about their personal brand at all when applying for work. However, if you have a super-impressive achievement that separates yourself from all the other candidates, you can consider using your cover letter to highlight this noteworthy aspect of yourself. Brand yourself as ‘that guy who managed to land an internship at Google’ or ‘that genius who went to Harvard.'”—Steve Wang, Resume Writing Advice blogger. Next, find out the things HR won’t tell you about your resume.

Joe McKinley
Joe McKinley is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering cars, careers, tech and more.