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Pop Quiz: How to Write a Good Cover Letter

businessman at desk surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Q: How do you write a cover letter that gets an employer’s attention? Ask 10 different career experts about cover letters and they will give you 10 different answers. I’m so confused I have no idea what works and what doesn’t. After doing some research, I’ve discovered four major cover letter tips. Can you tell me whether these four cover letter tips are true or false?

  1. Every cover letter should have three main thoughts.
  2. One good cover letter will work for every employer.
  3. A cover letter should convey your personality, style, and taste.
  4. Employers don't expect perfection. A typo in your cover letter isn't a sufficient reason to reject your resume.

A: Writing the perfect cover letter is a very difficult, if not impossible task. But the four cover letter “tips” you mention definitely need to be addressed. Here is my two cents:

1. Every cover letter should have three main thoughts. True

Don’t be fooled by the reference to “every. It’s true that words like “every,” “always” and “never” are often giveaways to a false statement. But cover letter tip #1 is a good example of how the exception proves the rule.

All good cover letters should include:

  1. Why you are specifically interested in the potential employer
  2. Why the employer should be interested in you
  3. When and how you will be contacting the employer to follow up

This cover letter technique sets you apart from your competition, states exactly why an employer needs to talk to you, and makes clear your intention to proactively pursue the job opening.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world where you always know the name of the company, the individual you’re contacting and the specific qualifications required for a job. If the job listing only provides a hazy or nonexistent description, you can't compose an ideal cover letter. In this case, you should carefully consider the likelihood of a generic cover landing you a job interview. If you decide the job is worth an application, go for it. But don't waste your time on marginal possibilities.

2. One good cover letter will work for every employer. False

Your cover letter and resume should be customized sales tools, not just lists of generic info about yourself. Consider how a salesperson approaches a customer: First, they determine the customer’s specific needs. Then they prepare a proposal highlighting how their product or service will meet those needs. The avoid talking about unrelated products, since that would waste the customer’s time and hurt the chances of making a sale.

A generic cover letter generally won’t get you a job, because it fails to address the potential employer's needs and expectations. If you want to write something that gets you an interview, do some research and customize your resume and cover letter fro each individual job.

3. A cover letter should convey your personality, style and taste. True

Cover letters written by professional cover letter writers can be deadly, especially if the writer doesn’t get any input from you. All of us have pet phrases and formats when we write. If you give a resume consultant a free hand when composing your cover letter, you may not recognize yourself in the result.

When applying for jobs, it is key that you write your cover letter yourself. If you get stuck, you can collaborate with a professional, but make sure the final cover letter is written in your hand. Why is this so important? Your ideas and phraseology should play a pivotal role in helping your letter stand out from the crowd, plus it fives the employer a true glimpse of your potential, which could easily be a deciding factor in your getting an interview.

4. Employers don't expect perfection. A typo in your cover letter isn't a sufficient reason to reject an application. False

Even the most understanding employer will be very critical of typos in your cover letter or resume. They assume you are making your very best effort in these two documents, so if one of them has a mistake, it questions your attention to detail and concern for quality.

Before you give or send a cover letter to anyone, ask a friend to review it. Because you’ve written it yourself, you may automatically read what you intend to say, rather than what is actually there. Your friend, on the other hand, has no preconceived notions and is more likely to catch a missing "and" or a misspelled word.

If you decide to use a service to send out a number of resumes, always check each document before it is used in an application. Like the taxpayer whose income tax return is audited because his accountant made a mistake, the buck stops with you. Your cover letter preparer may feel bad about an unfortunate glitch, but it's your career that's on the line.


taunee besson

Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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