There’s a recipe you can follow for writing a cover letter, says Alissa Strong, the assistant director of Seattle University’s career services department.
Stuck on what to put in your cover letter for that plum job? It’s understandable, says Alissa Strong, the assistant director of Seattle University’s career services department.
“It’s about the fear, and not knowing what to put down,” she says. “But there’s a recipe you can follow for writing a cover letter. Just use that structure and fill in the information.”
Strong works with students and alumni to craft compelling letters to potential employers.
And yes, those letters — normally emails, these days — are still important. “Think of a cover letter as adding voice and context to your experience,” Strong says.
“The cover letter is an opportunity to tell your story,” says John Davidsson of Olympic Résumé, a Puget Sound-area service. “Why do I want this particular job, at this particular employer, at this point in my life?”
Cover letters also help a candidate better understand why the position is a good fit, he says, and prep for an in-person or phone interview.
Compose the perfect pitch
Circle or highlight relevant skills that show up in both your résumé and the job description. Then “connect the dots” for the HR recruiters in your cover letter, using the description’s keywords that indicate your strengths as a candidate, Strong suggests.
Tweak the letter’s language to reflect the job listing. If the description uses the word “analyze,” but you originally went with “critique,” consider changing your cover letter to mirror the description.
Larger companies use applicant tracking systems or online application sites to match applicants to positions, Davidsson says. It’s hard to know how many people will view your application and cover letter, so it’s fine to start out with “To Whom It May Concern.”
Describe your fit
Describe both hard and soft skills. You might be a whiz at report writing, but how do you function as a team member? Employers seek soft skills — interpersonal and “EQ” (or “emotional IQ”) talents. “Talk about how you can contribute as a team member or fit into the workplace culture,” Strong says.
It’s a balancing act, however. “Highlight a great result, but save the full story for the interview,” says Louise Kursmark, author of “15-Minute Cover Letter” and co-author of “Cover Letter Magic.”
For example, outline how you changed the customer service department, describing the percentages of reduced hold times and increased response rates, but save the why or how for the interview, Kursmark says.
Avoid run-on sentences, halving long sentences if necessary, Strong says. Don’t list multiple skills in one long sentence or paragraph, either. Instead, pick one skill or experience to emphasize.
Put the most important information at the top. “You never know if they’ll finish reading the cover letter,” Strong says. One of those important pieces would be name dropping. If someone has suggested that you apply, mention that person in the first sentence.
Recruiters can tell if those introductory emails have been “recycled,” as Davidsson puts it, versus when an applicant has taken time to think through why they’ve applied. “This is a letter,” he says, “not a text, not a tweet.”
Don’t curb your enthusiasm. Outline the position and company’s appeal, Strong says, and describe how you see yourself contributing to both.
Match the company’s cultural tone. For example, an “edgy” startup might welcome a less-formal, more-confident note. To convey confidence, remove phrases such as “I think,” “I feel” or “I believe,” and just state: “I am a qualified candidate,” Strong suggests.
Still stuck? “Just start writing,” she says. “Set a small goal — write one paragraph, your introduction, or describe one skill.”