Writing a Cover Letter? 4 Things You Must Do to Stand Out

flock of penguins

Flock of penguins | iStock.com/Jeremy Richards

Cover letters are going the way of the way of the dodo. Like circling ads in the classified section and mailing off a hard copy of your resume, the tradition of including a customized cover letter with each job application is quietly dying out. Nearly half of job seekers don’t bother to include an introductory letter when sending an employer their resume, a CareerBuilder survey found.

Those on the receiving end of job applications aren’t necessarily lamenting the absence of awkward, wordy cover letters. Ninety percent of hiring managers and recruiters claim not to read them, a 2012 survey found. Only 40% of HR managers CareerBuilder surveyed said a cover letter made it more likely they’d pay attention to an application.

Not everyone can afford to ditch the cover letter, though. While an introductory note might be “totally unnecessary” if you’re applying for a tech job, it could still be expected in other industries, like finance, Ambra Benjamin, an engineering recruiter at Facebook, wrote on Quora. Cover letters may also make more of a difference if you’re applying for a job at a small company, since there’s a greater chance the HR manager will actually read it, she added. In some cases, a well-crafted cover letter can get an employer’s attention when your resume alone won’t do the job, such as when you’re switching fields or don’t have a lot of experience.

If you are going to take the time to write a cover letter, it pays to do it right. Big bloopers, like typos or mentioning the wrong company name because of a sloppy cut-and-paste job, result in a letter than hurts more than it helps. Nor is a dull-as-dirt boilerplate letter going to do you any favors. For a cover letter that helps you stand out from the crowd and leads to a job interview, follow these four tips.

1. Send it to a real person

man typing on laptop

Person writing an email | iStock.com

Attach your cover letter to an online job application and it may disappear into a black hole, but if you send your cover letter and resume to a real person it may actually get read. Twenty-two percent of HR managers surveyed by CareerBuilder said an application addressed to a specific person made them sit up and take notice.

Do a little internet sleuthing and find out the name of the person in charge of hiring for the job you want. When writing your cover letter, address it specifically to that person, rather than using the antiquated “Dear Sir or Madam” opening. This tactic can work even if you’re applying for jobs online.

“In addition to applying on the company website, send a thoughtful, targeted email that serves as your short cover letter and attach your resume. You would be amazed how few people do this and how it will make HR take notice,” Brad Hartman, the vice president of people at Unum Therapeutics, wrote on LinkedIn.

2. Send it in the body of the email

sign board saying 'Dream Job This Way'

Sign pointing toward a dream job | iStock.com

Just because it’s called a cover letter doesn’t mean you need to format it like one. Back in the day, candidates were taught to use the traditional business letter format for their cover letters, but these days, it’s perfectly acceptable – even expected – to include your cover letter in the body of the email, not as a separate attachment.  In fact, attaching your cover letter is virtually a guarantee it won’t get read, Benjamin noted. (The exception is when a job ad specifically requests you include a cover letter, in which case you should include it as an attachment.)

When writing an email cover letter, you leave out elements like the recipient’s address, but do include a formal greeting, an email signature, and a specific subject line. Your message should be brief. “Keep it short and to the point,” Benjamin wrote. “Like seriously, five sentences is all that’s necessary. If you’re in sales or something maybe a few bullet points. But no multiple paragraphs. Long cover letters are simply not going to get read.”

3. Customize it

hire me sign with smily face

“Hire me” written on a blackboard | iStock.com/flytosky11

A generic cover letter won’t help you stand out from hundreds, or even thousands, of other applicants fighting for the same job. Don’t fall into the trap of just rehashing information from your resume. Instead, use your letter to explain why you’re the perfect person for this specific job. Explain what drew you to apply in the first place. Maybe you loving using the company’s products, or you’re passionate about their mission. Then, connect the dots between your past experience the job you want.

“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,” Jenny Foss, job search expert and founder of JobJenny.com, told The Muse. “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.”

4. Show some personality

Job candidate at a career fair

Job candidate at a career fair | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Stiff and boring cover letters put people to sleep. Don’t be afraid to loosen up a bit when selling yourself to HR. Injecting some personality into the document can attract a hiring manager’s attention and shows you’re a real person, not a robot.

“Job seekers sometimes feel that a cover letter should be as formal as possible, but the best cover letters are written in a conversational, engaging tone,” HR expert Alison Green wrote. “Of course, don’t be overly casual; don’t use slang, and pay careful attention to things like grammar and spelling. But your tone and the language should be conversational, warm and engaging.”

Not sure if your letter has crossed the line into too informal? Let the job ad and the company’s website be your guide. A company that communicates in a witty or humorous way is likely open to more creative cover letters. A very formal job ad from a buttoned up company is a sign you might want to stick to a more conventional script.

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