The cover letter can be the most difficult part of the pre-interview process. Resumes often only require minor tweaks for each application, but a successful cover letter needs to be hand-crafted for each employer.
Appealing to an individual, or small group of individuals you know very little about, is your chance to show your marketing acumen. It’s worth putting extra time and research into each letter. Remember that job applications are an exercise in marketing, so put on your digital marketer hat and strut your stuff.
First, some practical advice:
Never Use “To whom it may concern”
If you find yourself starting with “To whom it may concern,” stop. Do not write any further. Open your browser, look up the company website, find the name of an HR manager — or, better yet, call and ask who to address letters to. If you’re sending your application by email, and the email address format is “firstname.lastname@example.org”, well, you know exactly who to name in your letter.
And, make sure to use the correct form of address. If the whole Mrs./Ms./Miss thing confuses you, a full name or title followed by last name will suffice. (Hint: Ms. gets you out of trouble in most situations. Never use Miss unless the recipient has indicated that they prefer it.)
What if you absolutely cannot find a name? I refer you back to the heading of this section. Never, ever use “To whom it may concern.” Substitutes I like are “Dear HR Manager/Team,” “Dear Recruiter,” or if you’re feeling bold and think it will go down well, something familiar like “Dear awesome/savvy marketers” or “Dear marketing gurus.” This type of language is powerful if the company oozes a tone that justifies it, but be careful.
Do Your Research
Treat the hiring manager like your target market. The product? You. Take the steps to identifying a target market that you’re so familiar with and apply them with the opposite intent. Instead of choosing who to target; you’re choosing which aspects of your product (you) to highlight based on data that you’ve already been given.
Don’t forget to do this for the company, as well as the hiring manager, as it can narrow your data points. Is the company a startup? You’re more likely to be interviewed by someone you’ll be working with directly. They are also likely to be either young or an industry veteran who desperately needed a change of pace. In which case, your cover letter should include evidence that you will adapt well to the company culture, in addition to your technical skills. If the company is larger or older, you’re more likely to be dealing with a career HR manager or a specialist recruiter. Their priorities are different. The volume of open positions and applications is likely to be greater, so your letter is more likely to get skimmed.
Show, Don’t Tell
It’s the writer’s first rule. And you’re writing.
Keywords are generally important. They prove that you have read and understood the details of the position and the company.
In my opinion, save them for your resume. If you’re relying on keywords in your cover letter, you’re not writing to win.
A resume is like a landing page. Designed to be skimmed, to appeal to a reader as quickly as possible and provide them with a next step to learn more. Online, that next step can be a product page, a web form, a more in depth explanation of services … In all circumstances, the next step requires more of the reader’s attention, and it all supports the end goal: a sale. To make the sale, you need to slow the reader down.
If you’re writing your cover letter to be skimmed, you’re not engaging the reader in your end goal: hiring you. You need to make them stop skimming. A cover letter needs to be authentic, personal, and it needs to tell a story.
Take everything you know about writing content that’s easy to read and apply it to your cover letter. Now throw all that boring crap you know about writing a cover letter out of the window, and tell bold personal stories that exemplify the qualities that employer is seeking. You don’t need to tell someone you’re organized if you expand on a story about the challenges you faced working at a library.
Just remember to strike a balance with professional language. If you go too avant garde, the risk may not pan out.
Nip Concerns in the Bud
If your resume has anything concerning on it, your cover letter is the perfect opportunity to spin a positive. The most common flag that hiring managers see is a gap in your work history.
Take the opportunity to tell one of those personal stories. Use your cover letter to address the employment gap and do your very best to draw a marketable skill out of it. Don’t use apologetic or timid language. You took a gap in your employment to do something awesome and here’s why it turned you into a tank of an entrepreneur.
With the right approach, a punchy intro and an engaging story, you can make sure your cover letter is the only one that doesn’t get skimmed. It’s your chance to show the company who you are. So don’t you dare write like you’re going to be ignored. Write a letter they can’t ignore, be memorable. Take the risk, that’s what marketing is all about.