By Judi Perkins
There are two prevalent solutions to cover letters. The first is to have it written professionally. The second is to labor over it yourself - once. Either way, personalization usually ends with the company name and address. Both are ineffective, and neither type of cover letter is usually read.
Give Them What They Want
Cover letters aren't just a matter of etiquette. They're actually a sales tool that 99% of people waste. An ad is the company telling you what they want to hire. Most people respond by telling the company what they have to offer. Usually, there's not much correlation between the two.
It's as if you told the sales guy at Best Buy you want a digital camera with a great macro lens and he started telling you about one with a long battery life and no red eye. Are you impressed? Interested? Neither is the hiring company.
An effective cover letter mirrors the ad. It's short, scannable and easy to read - three to four short paragraphs at most, with six lines each maximum.
If you have the name of the company but not the person's name, find out the person's name and use it. Receptionists and admins can be helpful, and don't forget the internet.
In the first paragraph, say why you're writing to them. Instead of "I am writing because I saw your ad for a [position]," start with "I was excited to read your ad for a [position]!" It removes the blandness and gives the impression you're sincerely interested in the company and the position. And if you aren't, then why are you answering the ad?
Make It Personal
In the second and third paragraphs, personalize it. Pick one or two of their listed requirements and connect each to a specific instance of your experience where the outcome was not only positive, but you created that outcome. People are generally adept at stating the action, but unfortunately, they forget to share the results.
Ask yourself, "What effect did this have on the company?" or "What was the positive outcome of this?" This is an essential piece of the equation because it outlines your contribution and result. Spell out your results so that your capabilities are clear.
Wrap It Up with Zeal
The last paragraph winds everything up. Be pro-active. Indicate you'll follow up the week of [date] (about five to seven days after you've mailed it). This not only demonstrates enthusiasm and interest, but it shows your attention to detail. Yes, if they want to get in touch with you, they will. But don't use that as an excuse to hide your fear of following up. Don't just blend in - show initiative.
Effort Pays Off
Why go through all of this trouble? Taking these extra steps keeps you in control of your career. A personalized cover letter gets you remembered. Writing to the person by name gets you remembered. Saying you'll follow up and then doing so gets you remembered.
Stay at the top of the applicant pile and, when you're called in for an interview, you'll be part of that decision process. If you go generic, skip the salutation and wait around, you'll blend into the woodwork. At that point, you can't choose to accept an interview when the company has decided not to extend you the invitation.