Whoever said that you can’t judge a book by its cover didn’t have hiring managers in mind. First impressions have a significant impact on how employers perceive a candidate. For this reason, the application’s “cover” — the cover letter — is a critical element of a favorable first impression.
However, I’ve observed over the years that well-qualified job candidates often submit weak cover letters. This usually happens because the candidates treat them as an afterthought or they don’t understand the true purpose of the cover letter and simply repeat what is on the résumé.
It’s important to take your cover letter seriously. It provides potential employers with additional information that can guide their hiring decisions. Tom Knox, vice president of Porter Novelli in Sacramento, Calif., says, “Employers are looking for a candidate who can walk in and start being effective right away. A very polished package — including the cover letter and résumé — reduces the employer’s risk of hiring the wrong person for the job.”
The essential difference between a résumé and a cover letter is that a résumé should provide basic information about your education, employment and skills, telling a prospective employer why you are qualified for the job. The cover letter, however, should show why you are the best candidate. It affirms your interest, tells how you will make a contribution to this employer and shares other facts that set you apart from other candidates. In short, résumés focus on qualification and cover letters speak to differentiation.
Keywords are key
Good cover letters are about the job — not just about you. Carefully research and consider every job description before you respond. “Use a few keywords in your cover letter that match the job description,” says Ashley Houston, recruitment director at GolinHarris in Chicago. “This could take the form of a nice key point summary of your qualifications — the written equivalent of an elevator speech.”
For instance, when responding to a job description that requests experience in event management, be sure to mention any events that you’ve directed as well as related skills you’ve acquired, such as organizing and planning, booking entertainment and securing permits.
Keep in mind that cover letters and résumés are sometimes electronically scanned and keywords are identified before they are ever read. This means that it is important to include these words. However, try not to overload your language with numerous keywords that don’t accurately reflect your abilities and experience. This is disingenuous and compromises your opportunity to express your own uniqueness. It will also be obvious when a reader reviews the cover letter.
In addition to highlighting your qualifications and offering a brief description of skills that specifically relate to this job, your cover letter can also express your enthusiasm and explain why this particular opportunity interests you. Think of this as your personal sales pitch. Avoid sounding arrogant and don’t promise to singlehandedly take the firm to unprecedented levels of success, but do try to exude confidence.
When composing your cover letter, keep one eye on your résumé to make sure you aren’t repeating yourself. A few highly desirable or unique skills could be mentioned in both the cover letter and the résumé — if you pioneered a new online media monitoring process, for instance. However, you generally shouldn’t use the limited space in your cover letter to explain something that the employer will read on your résumé. Cover letters should be kept to a few well-developed paragraphs — don’t exceed one printed page in length.
E-mail or attachment?
If you are submitting your application materials as a hard copy, the cover letter should be on a separate page preceding the résumé. However, if you are asked to submit your résumé via e-mail, many hiring managers recommend that you submit the cover letter as the e-mail message itself, rather than as a separate document. Attachments can be bulky and time-consuming for people to open and print out. Also, managers may be more likely to read an e-mail than an attachment from their hand-held devices while traveling. If your prospective employers only have one item to review, it will be easier for them to consider your application, which should always be one of your goals.
Maryanne Rainone, senior vice president and managing director of the New York City-based executive search consultant firm Heyman Associates, says, “To an extent, the cover letter is becoming a dinosaur. It should really be renamed the ‘introductory e-mail.’ The cover letter content should be short and to the point (just two or three brief paragraphs) and in the body of the e-mail.”
Each time you create a separate introductory e-mail, use it as an opportunity to customize your cover letter. Don’t miss the chance to show your unique qualifications and interest in this particular job and the value you can add to the organization.
Susan Balcom Walton, M.A., APR, is an associate professor of public relations at Brigham Young University. She has also held communications management positions at various Fortune 500 companies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.