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How to create a cover letter that gets attention

CareerBuilder | September 5, 2020

Tips for creative cover letters

Craft a cover letter that gets the hiring manager's attention and sets you apart from other applicants.

Look, no one loves writing cover letters. Just like no one LOVES eating kale (we see right through you, Gwyneth Paltrow). But both are a means to an end: If you want to live to the age of 95, try eating more kale; if you want to get ahead in your job search, include a cover letter. In a 2016 CareerBuilder survey, 40 percent of hiring managers said they’re more likely to pay attention to job applications that include cover letters.

Unfortunately, a cover letter alone isn’t enough to impress hiring managers. Fortunately, we’re here to tell you what is. Use these expert-approved tips to help you create an eye-catching cover letter.

Start with a solution. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of cover letters start with, ‘Dear X, I'm writing about the ABC position,’” says Deborah Ostreicher, CEO of Distinguished Communications. A unique opening can set you apart from other applicants immediately. “Start with a solution-oriented statement,” she suggests. “For example, ‘If you are looking for a traffic engineer with varied experience in multiple industries, who can effectively manage a large team, look no further.’” Such an opening simultaneously grabs the hiring manager’s attention and demonstrates your value.

Avoid jargon. Ann Thariani, president of Gilden Tree, Inc., says only a small fraction of the resumes she received when hiring for a recent position were written in “simple English…The rest were [written in] business gobbledygook, with lots of generic business terms, and long, complicated sentences.” When writing cover letters, Thariani’s best advice is to “write a cover letter that sounds like something you might actually say. Those help me get a sense of who you are, and whether you would be a good fit with our company better than anything else.”

Keep it brief. When it comes to the cover letter, less is more, says Jillian Dube, vice president of People Operations at The Predictive Index. “Job seekers should use their cover letter to draw out a few highlights of why they are applying, not reiterate what is already listed on their resume,” Dube says. For Thariani, the ideal cover letter is no more than a few sentences: “The best cover letters acknowledge the job offering, and, in two or three sentences, tell me about why they are excited about this particular job. In two or three more sentences, they should tell me about the experiences and skills that make them a good fit.”

Know your audience. Sometimes you can say something that makes the hiring manager remember you – in a bad way. For DeeAnn Sims, founder of SPBX, using curse words is a major turn off. “I don't care how ‘cool’ you think the company is – that will always be considered extremely unprofessional,” she says. There are other ways to be “fun and modern” without resorting to profanities. Sims recalls one memorable candidate who “opened his cover letter with a ‘Thank You’ letter to his parents and student loans for getting him to this point.”

Include testimonials. “If you have quotes or words from a reference letter that you could copy and paste and include the contact info of the reference, awesome,” says Valerie Streif, senior advisor for The Mentat. “Sometimes it's better to let others speak on your behalf, and this could carry a lot of weight in your favor.”

Do your research. “Generic cover letters are definitely a turn off simply because it tells you the candidates aren't willing to sacrifice their time for your time,” says Judy Tan, a hiring manager for Age Brilliantly who reviews thousands of applications a month. Tan says the key to standing out is customizing the cover letter to the specific company. “I had a marketing intern apply, and she clearly did her research. How did I know? She gave me three ways to boost our business with clear analysis of why it is worth it.”

Keep in mind that an impressive cover letter will only get you so far. While it may get you in the door, what ultimately determines if you get the job is having the necessary skills and experience for which hiring managers are looking.

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