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5 Things Every Cover Letter Should Have

HR experts dish out advice on writing stellar cover letters

By Alisha Tillery - March 29, 2011

There are only two focal points in a cover letter: the position and you, the applicant. So, if you want to land the job, you better clearly state the connection between your experience and the employer's requirements. Sorry, but merely swapping out greetings and company names with each submission doesn't count.

"If you can't write a cover letter, I don't want to meet you," says Jane Turkewitz, owner and president of T and Jam Resume Service. "I really think that a well thought out cover letter says a lot about your work ethic, your thought processes and your ability to market yourself."

Sharlyn Lauby, owner of the human resources consulting firm Internal Talent Management (ITM) Group, agrees. "A well-written cover letter is an opportunity for a candidate to establish a connection with the recruiter. It should be personalized for the situation and compel the recruiter to want to look further at the candidate's resume."

The key is to go beyond just showing that you want a job, but that you want this job. Here are five crucial cover letter items that will prove you're the best person for the company and the position.

1. A Skill-Based Template
When on the hunt for a new gig, it can get a little tedious writing new cover letters and resumes for every position. Instead of relying on canned form letters (which, by the way, recruiters hate), Turkewitz suggests creating templates, which allow applicants to pull information and tailor a cover letter for any employer. Create sections of your templates that include your qualifications, experience, or why you would be a fit for the position. This helps to avoid common pitfalls, such as sending letters to incorrect hiring managers or company addresses. She writes, "If you can't take the time to write a custom letter, the hiring manager or recruiter will not think that you are serious about THEIR job."

"If you can't write a cover letter, I don't want to meet you."

You can take this method a step further by organizing your templates for each of your strengths or fields of interest. For example, if you're a journalist who excels in new media and sports reporting, you might create one cover letter that focuses on your reporting and editing skills for a newspaper position, another that highlights your Twitter know-how for digital companies, and still one more that's sports-specific for a basketball blog. Then, instead of starting from scratch each time you're applying, you already have a custom framework based on the requirements of the position.

2. A Strong, Revealing Lede
Writing a cover letter is no different than writing a news story -- it should hook your reader early. "Open up, draw me in. Make me want to read you," says Turkewitz. "My biggest pet peeve is saying, 'Oh, I heard you had a job open.' Okay, we know that; you're applying for the job. Let's start with a really strong opener that really sells who you are."

She advises applicants to succinctly point out key things that make them qualified for the position. Opening your cover letter with a statement about your experience and accomplishments says much more than merely stating your name and where you reside. Be original in how you project yourself, especially if the position calls for some creativity.

3. News Knowledge
Hiring managers in the media business want to know that you're up on the latest happenings in the industry. So, whether you're applying for a position as a graphic designer or SEO whiz, try to convey your knowledge of the company or organization. Are there recent press releases or news reports about the business? If so, make reference to those developments in your cover letter, but that's not all. Make sure you indicate what your skills and experience can contribute to that company.

"Company news alone wouldn't compel me to read someone's resume," Lauby says. "What would stand out is if a candidate can connect it to the position they are applying for or how they can use it to bring value to the company."

4. Additional Information Requested By The Employer
In addition to selling yourself for the job, your cover letter is essential in providing the employer with other vital information requested in the application, such as salary or location requirements. "Candidates need to provide a recruiter what they ask for," explains Lauby. "It not only helps the process, but it demonstrates that the candidate is thorough and can follow instructions."

"A well-written cover letter is an opportunity for a candidate to establish a connection with the recruiter."

If a job posting requests your minimum salary and you leave it out, you might not get the interview. Similarly, if you live in another city and make no reference to relocation, hiring managers may be reluctant to even consider you. It's up to the applicant to use the cover letter to express sincere interest in the position, though it could be thousands of miles away.

David Gaspin, talent acquisition director at Conde Nast, says, "You need to explain that, 'I realize that I am in Dallas, but I am willing and able to get to New York for interviews as needed, and willing and able to relocate quickly and at my own expense should an opportunity arise.' If I don't see that, I think you're looking for a job in Dallas."

5. Company/Applicant Comparisons
This tip may be last on our list, but it is by far the most important: align your strengths with the duties listed in the job description. For example, if the posting requires "knowledge of CSS," you might say "I designed blog layouts and built websites using CSS. I used Dreamweaver regularly in my previous position and am a whiz at HTML." If they want "an ability to write great display copy for magazines," explain how you wrote heds and deks for your previous employer's print pub and website. Just be careful not to overdo it.

Lauby explains, "This can be tricky, especially if the candidate has experience in many areas but is a little light in others. Focusing on strengths versus doing a laundry list comparison might present the candidate in a better way."

Contrary to what many think, a cover letter is not a do-over of your resume, Gaspin says, but a snapshot of your thoughts about your ability and capacity to effectively fill the position. Simply put, it's your time to shine.

NEXT >> AvantGuild4 Things Every Resume Should Have

Alisha N. Tillery is a freelance writer living and working in Memphis. She maintains a personal blog, Because I Said So.

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