Unlike résumés, which are all about structure and efficiency, cover letters are a more difficult animal because they must be personal.

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Since it’s the first full week of a new year, now’s as good a time as any to start rethinking your job-search strategy. Why not begin with the first contact that most people have with a hiring manager: the cover letter.

Aside from advice about organizing resumes, the topic I’m asked about the most is how to write an effective cover letter. Unlike résumés, which are all about structure and efficiency, cover letters are a more difficult animal because they must be personal.

There is no “perfect” cover letter for the same reason that no two jobs or hiring managers are exactly alike. Some may prefer you cut to the chase and write a five-sentence, three-paragraph letter. Others may be drawn in by a funny anecdote. Still others may be repelled by attempts at humor. The key is to research the company to figure out the right tone.

But here are a few universal rules of thumb to adhere to as you find your own cover-letter voice.

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1. Who are you? Before you launch into your credentials, have you even introduced yourself? In the first two paragraphs, the cover letter should briefly describe who you are, what you consider your personal brand and how long you’ve been in the business. No amount of clever wordplay will matter if you don’t get these basic points across up front.

2. Why should I keep reading? So you’re a hot-shot accountant with 15 years of experience. Join the crowd of 86 others just like you on the hiring manager’s desk. The next paragraph should contain something that conveys your personality. Describe specifically why you want to work in this particular position for this particular company.

3. Do you know the company? Many job seekers spend so much time on their accomplishments that they forget to talk about the actual job. Refer to something newsworthy about the company to show you know what they do and that you keep up with the latest developments.

4. Why should I contact you? By now you’ve established how great this job will be for your career. But what does the company get out if it? Be sure to describe what expertise you can bring to the position that can potentially solve a problem, meet a customer’s need or reach a common goal.

5. Do you really want the job? It seems too simple to mention, yet most cover-letter writers fail to even ask for the job. In a sea of similarly worded cover letters, a little enthusiasm can go a long way. Let the hiring manager know you’re excited to work for the company and can’t wait to get started.

Randy Woods is a writer and editor in the Puget Sound business publishing arena and a veteran of the local job-search scene. Email him at randywoods67@gmail.com.