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Cheat Sheet

Cover Letters For Dummies

Write an effective, eye-catching cover letter if you want to grab the attention of a potential employer. A cover letter is the first impression that job seekers make, so be sure it's a good one! By following some helpful writing tips, avoiding common mistakes, and incorporating elements of a standout letter, you'll set your cover letter apart from the rest.

Tips for Writing a Standout Cover Letter

Your goal when writing a cover letter is to attract interest and get employers to read your resume. These five qualities define a standout cover letter- a cover letter and resume that land in the short stack of keepers and not the discard pile -so incorporate them into your writing:

  • Write in vigorous, vibrant, and animated language that persuades rather than sedates. Use attention-nabbing opens to grab the reader by the eyeglasses and hang on tight.

  • Use an action close (say you'll call) to position yourself for a positive follow-up. You lose face when you ask readers to call and they don't. "I didn't hear from you so, well . . . uh . . . ah . . . um." Note: An action close works in most circumstances, but not all; you wouldn't apply to become the White House chief of staff and tell the president you'll call to set up an interview.

  • Address your letters to individuals. Use names. Make an intense effort to find the name, correct job title, and address of the human being who will receive your letter.

  • Bait your letters with marketable skills and other benefits you bring to employers. Convince them that you have something they need and want.

  • Use postscripts to dramatize some bit of information too tantalizing for readers to ignore.

Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

The people who read cover letters and resumes oppose goofy grammar, typos, unusual punctuation, and other careless offenses against accepted language methods. You get only one shot to make a first impression, so when you're preparing your cover letter, be meticulous and avoid these common mistakes:

  • Typos and other flubs (such as failing to use capital letters when called for) can send your message straight to the Big Dead Letter Box, including the one in the cyber sky.

  • Writing the wrong tone and style of letter to the right person does you no good. Is your industry or career field casual and breezy or button-down and formal? It makes a difference.

  • Summarizing your resume wastes the readers' time. Add sales sizzle to new information.

  • Canned cover letters — like generic resumes — risk being treated like junk mail.

  • Too many unsupported assertions and victory laps ("exceptional communications skills, outsold the world's workforce") rise to uncertain clouds like hot air balloons. Validate claims with specific facts and numbers.

Elements of Eye-Catching Cover Letters

Avoid sending a generic cover letter and instead submit one that stands out, inspires intrigue, and gets noticed by employers. To ensure that your cover letter is a memorable one, ask yourself if it covers these critical points:

  • Addresses its reader by name; if a name is absolutely, positively unavailable, it addresses by the best alternative title.

  • Introduces me by mentioning a mutual contact, previous telephone conversation or meeting, or by using a "hook" statement that sells my hottest, most relevant qualifications.

  • Centers on the employer. As much as possible, it matches point-by-point what the employer wants; in effect, my letter says, "You want, I offer."

  • Specifically tells an employer how I can make money or save money for the company while doing the job the employer wants done.

  • Is rich with accomplishments and achievements. I measure them with real numbers, percentages, or dollar amounts.

  • Has no typos.

  • Is filled with powerful, selling words for extra bite.

  • Illustrates specific product, company, and industry knowledge — showing I did my homework.

  • Translates acronyms, technical jargon, or military lingo into plain English.

  • Closes by asking for an interview, promising to follow up at a given time.

  • Carefully measures the amount of personal data posted online, guarding against identity theft.

  • Contains keywords that software systems can easily pick up.

  • Informs the reader of the position I want near its top or in the "Regarding" space; if not, it gives ample clues to how I could fit in well to any of several positions.

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