Many job seekers focus so intensely on their résumés that they forget the importance of the cover letter. And it is important...

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Many job seekers focus so intensely on their résumés that they forget the importance of the cover letter. And it is important: In a crowded field of applicants, your cover letter can make or break you because it’s the first thing a potential employer sees.

“The purpose of the résumé is to get you an interview, and the purpose of the cover letter is to get someone to read your résumé,” said David Humphrey, owner of Beacon Communications Concepts, a résumé-writing and career-coaching service in Naperville, Ill.

“Actually, the cover letter is a sales pitch for the résumé. It’s the initial introduction.”

Humphrey asserts that cover letters may be much more important than résumés. “Yet job seekers send inadequate ones and wonder why they never get a call back.”

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Here’s Humphrey’s approach to a cover letter:

“It should be written on white bond paper with a heading with your name and contact information that is identical to the heading on your resume.”

It should have three paragraphs. “The first is the introduction, in which you identify the position, why you are applying and how you learned about the opening. You might also drop a name, if you have permission. And you can say something about the company, if you’ve done some research.”

At the end of the first paragraph, “state you are a strong candidate because of your qualifications.” Then segue to the second paragraph, in which you explain “exactly why you are a viable candidate by matching the employer’s requirements with your skills, education and experience.”

The last paragraph should “include a statement that says you are “a strong match for this opportunity and are looking forward to meeting” them in person. And be proactive: Say that if you don’t hear from them within a week or 10 days, you will call them.

I asked him if his approach also applies to job applications on the Internet. “Absolutely,” Humphrey said. “The same procedure is important in order not only to give your qualifications but to demonstrate your good communication skills — most employers want people who are good communicators, and the cover letter is a chance to shine.”

Humphrey has followed his own advice. “In the early 1980s, when I had been in education for about 20 years, I wanted a change,” he said. “I wrote a cover letter with my résumé describing my abilities to 10 companies. It explained how I could transition from education administration to the corporate world.

“I matched the skills required. They wanted financial expertise, and I had done budgets; they needed someone with personnel experience, and I had hired and fired; and they were looking for a good communicator, and I described how I organized and conducted meetings.”

The result: He got three interviews, two job offers and a job he held for 12 years as a manager and vice president.

E-mail questions to Carol Kleiman at ckleiman@tribune.com. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.