What Employers Want To See In A Cover Letter

You know that next job of yours? Yes, that’s right, the really amazing one with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks in the office vending machine? That one.

You know how you’re going to land it? By quickly showing your future employer that:

a) You’re going to perform incredibly well in this job.
b) You’re insanely likable.
c) You’re really going to fit in around there.

These are the three primary factors that influence the selection process. The person who wins that great job will be the one who shows the decision makers, quickly, that he or she is all three of those things. And you have an amazing opportunity to begin planting these seeds right from the introduction, à la your cover letter.

Most people squander the opportunity. Instead of using their cover letter real estate to their massive advantage, they toss over bland, cliche-filled, or completely-redundant-to-the-resume clunkers. Or worse, they showcase all the things that they want out of the deal, without pausing for a moment to recognize that the company cares a heck of a lot more about what it’s going to get from you.

As a recruiter, it pains me to read most cover letters, because the vast (and I mean vast) majority of them stink. Knowing this should inspire you even further to create a brilliant one. Because, let me tell you, on those rare occasions an amazing cover letter crosses my desk? Mamma mia. It makes my day, and it most certainly influences my interest in its author.

So, how do you pull off a killer cover letter, one that conveys passion and talent and that makes the recruiter or hiring manager’s day? Make sure you do all of these things.

1. Tell Them Why, Specifically, You’re Interested in the Company

Decision makers never want to feel like you’re wallpapering the universe with the same pathetic cover letter. They want to feel special. And so, you need to make it clear that you’re approaching this organization for very specific reasons. And ideally, not the same very specific reasons that everyone else is giving.

Example

Try a high-personality lead in like this: “Having grown up with the Cincinnati Zoo (literally) in my backyard, I understand firsthand how you’ve earned your reputation as one of the most family-friendly venues in the State of Ohio. For 20 years, I’ve been impressed as your customer; now I want to impress visitors in the same way your team has so graciously done for me.”

2. Outline What You Can Walk Through the Doors and Deliver

This isn’t you making a general proclamation of, “Hey, I’m great. I swear!” You need to scrutinize the job description and use whatever other information you’ve gathered about the opening, determine the key requirements and priorities for this job, and make it instantly clear to the reviewer that you can deliver the goods on these key things.

Example

Consider crafting a section within the letter that begins with, “Here’s what, specifically, I can deliver in this role.” And then expound upon your strengths in a few of the priority requirements for that role (they’re typically listed first on the job description or mentioned more than once).

3. Tell a Story, One That’s Not on Your Resume

As humans, we love stories far more than we love data sheets. (OK, I speak for most humans). So, what’s your story? What brings you to this company? Did you used to sing along to all of its commercials as a kid? Did the product make some incredible difference in your life? Do you sometimes pull into the parking lot and daydream about what it would feel like to work there? Tell your story. Just make sure you have a great segue. Random trivia can come across as weird.

Example

Say you’re applying for a marketing job with a baked goods company known for its exquisite tarts and pies. You may want to weave a sentence or two into your cover letter about how you took the blue ribbon in the National Cherry Festival pie eating contest when you were 10, and that you’ve been a pie fanatic ever since. (Yes, this was me, but I actually came in second place. Sigh.)

4. Address the Letter to an Actual Person Within the Company

Not one employee at your future new company is named “To Whom it May Concern,” so knock that off. You’ve got to find a real person to whom you can direct this thing.

This seems so hard or overwhelming, but it’s often easier than you may think. Just mosey over to LinkedIn and do a People search using the company’s name as your search term. Scroll through the people working at that company until you find someone who appears to be the hiring manager. If you can’t find a logical manager, try locating an internal recruiter, the head of staffing or, in smaller companies, the head of HR. Address your masterpiece to that person. Your effort will be noted and appreciated.



And a last, critical factor when it comes to delivering a great cover letter: Be you. Honest, genuine writing always goes much, much further than sticking to every dumb rule you’ve ever read in stale, outdated career guides and college textbooks.

Rules can be bent. In fact, if you truly want that amazing job with the brilliant co-workers, cool boss, and fresh, free snacks? They should be.

That's awesome to hear, because connecting great people to great jobs is kinda our thing.

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Cover letters can really grab a recruiter’s attention and set you ahead of the other applicants. The right combination of active language, key words, and a few subtle tweaks can turn any old cover letter into a winner.

The right combination of active language, key words, and a few subtle tweaks can turn any old cover letter into a winner.

Recruiters say your cover letter should be succinct and:

  • Show how your achievements relate to the role
  • Highlight how your skills and work experience are what the employer needs
  • Show genuine excitement and enthusiasm for the role
  • List your most significant achievements from previous roles
  • Tell the recruiter or employer why you’re the person for the job

We asked leading recruiters for their idea of a killer cover letter:

Jason Walker, Director of Hays

Walker says your cover letter should complement your CV by highlighting the most relevant aspects relating to the position.

  • Walker looks for cover letters that are tailored to suit each job and that demonstrate what a good fit a candidate is for the role. “All too often we see generic cover letters that are not tailored to the role, or worse, were used for another application and still have another company name in,” says Walker.
  • Cover letters should underline keywords that describe how your skills, training and experience fit the job, he adds. And he looks for an individual’s unique selling points in the cover letter.
  • “It should be written so that the reader cannot possibly pass it over without opening the resume document itself,” says Walker.

Ian Scott, Manager at Randstad Technologies

When Scott requests a cover letter he reads it before opening the CV. “If a candidate fails to include a cover letter (after requesting one), they failed their first test. And I bet their CV says they have great attention to detail!”

Scott is looking for passion, “if that can be expressed in three to four short paragraphs.” Ideally the letter will be contained to just one page, he says.

  • A cover letter is often a truer reflection of a candidate’s writing skills. “If the candidate has included a cover letter, I am looking for accuracy because it is the document that has probably been written most recently, and has not been typed by a professional or been checked over by a friend or family member.”
  • He looks for cover letters that show the candidate has taken time to read the advert and the job description, proof that they’ve looked at the company website, and if they know who the employer is. “That shows care and attention, which are qualities that our clients love in their organisations.”

Tony Pownall, Regional General Manager at Hudson

Pownall is impressed by a cover letter in which a candidate talks about their motivation and passion for a particular role, and highlights the key competencies. Pownall adds that candidates should pull out two to three points to demonstrate that they have a very transferable skill set.

He recommends following up with a phone call to encourage the recruiter or employer to open the cover letter. “It demonstrates interest,” he says.

Finally, even if time is tight, get someone else to read over your cover letter and provide feedback. Getting it right can really boost your chances of landing the job.

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