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How to Write a Terrific Cover Letter

by Ruth Mayhew

Outstanding cover letters make recruiters and hiring managers want to learn more about your qualifications. Writing a letter that compels the reader to pick up the phone and contact you isn't difficult; there's no special recipe or trick to getting it right. It's rather simple: Write a succinct letter that addresses key points and asks for an interview. Ask for an interview, don't ask for the job. The purpose of your cover letter and resume is to get an interview. Your in-person presentation during the interview is what gets you the job.

Make it Personal

Consider times you've tossed aside mail that comes to your home addressed to "Resident," because it's impersonal. In business, few people appreciate getting a letter addressed to "Whom it May Concern" because it, too, is impersonal and conveys a sense of laziness, particularly when it's coming from a job seeker. Be resourceful and do your research. Call the human resources department to get the addressee's name. Instead of saying, "I need the name of the person recruiting for the secretarial position," say, "I'm very interested in the secretarial position with your company, and I'd like the correct spelling and title of the person to whom I can send a personalized cover letter." Properly format your cover letter with a personal salutation, such as "Dear Ms. Smith," which is far more impressive than the impersonal alternative.

Avoid Gimmicks

A terrific cover letter captures the reader's attention beginning with the first paragraph, but you needn't use a gimmicky exclamation to accomplish this. Your introductory paragraph must contain pertinent information and briefly state something you have to offer the organization. Avoid starting the letter with, "Have you been looking for the perfect employee? Here I am!" You don't know that you're perfect for the job. At this stage in the process, you couldn't possibly know enough to make such a claim. Take it down a notch by writing, "I'm very interested in learning more about the secretarial position that was posted on SimplyHired.com. I could bring a wealth of experience to Community Hospital, based on 15 years of expertise in administrative roles supporting hospital executives."

Give Concrete Examples

Great cover letters contain substance that directly applies to the job vacancy. For example, if you're applying to become a sales representative, give the recruiter or hiring manager food for thought about your ability to generate revenue. Use three to five bullet points that indicate how much you've sold, how many times you exceeded your sales goals, acquired new territories or expanded your client base. Always use numbers and percentages to show that you understand the importance of measurable and tangible evidence of your performance.

Be Proactive and Assertive

Conclude your letter with a respectful salutation, but use that final paragraph to seal the deal for an interview. If you're comfortable enough indicating that you'll follow up on your interest, tell the reader when you intend to reach out: Write, "I will call you in the next two to three days to schedule a mutually convenient time to meet." This is an ideal closing for jobs where motivation and initiative are appreciated qualities, such as sales or marketing. On the other hand, if you believe the company prefers a low-key approach, just ask for an interview by writing, "I would be delighted to learn more about this job in an interview with you. Please contact me when you begin the next phase of the selection process."

Consider Snail Mail

"It's all in the delivery," is something you hear about verbal communication or how someone communicates an important message. It's also true for written communication. Nowadays, electronic applications and online employment processes rule. But you could stand out if you actually print your cover letter and resume and drop the envelope in the mail or send it via personal delivery. Giving the reader a tactile experience to learn more about you by sending a hard copy -- when most candidates will probably take the easy route -- might land your cover letter on the top of the pile.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew began writing in 1985. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry" and "Human Resources Managers Appraisal Schemes." Mayhew earned senior professional human resources certification from the Human Resources Certification Institute and holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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