What to Include in Your Cover Letter

In all my experience as a recruiter and career coach, I’ve never once met a candidate who enjoyed writing cover letters. Most job seekers don’t know what the purpose of a cover letter is, so they don’t know how to write one. They’ve also heard rumors that recruiters and hiring managers don’t usually read cover letters, so they focus on preparing their resume and throw a cover letter together at the last minute with little thought.

But let me tell you something important. If I read your cover letter, it will be the single most important part of your application. Your cover letter will determine whether your resume goes in the “yes” pile or the “no” pile, and whether you are ultimately invited for an interview.

Having read hundreds of cover letters, I can tell you that most people don’t know what should go in a cover letter, so they just rehash the information that’s already in their resume. In case you were wondering, the people running the hiring process are not dumb. They can read your resume and they can tell if you have the right skills for the job. They don’t need a second document giving them the EXACT SAME information. When they read your cover letter, they’re looking for something different and unique. Here’s what that is, in the order I recommend writing about it in your cover letter:

1) Your connection to this company

 As you would any time you meet someone new, you should introduce yourself. Let the company know how you know them. If you were connected with this job opportunity through someone who works for the company, this is the time to name drop. You can say something like, “I was referred to your company [include the specific company name] by my mentor Bob Smith who told me about the great experience he has had working as the Vice President in your finance department.”

Even if you don’t have a personal relationship with someone who works at the company your cover letter is a great opportunity to make a connection. You can talk about how you were drawn to the company because of a recent article listing them as one of the top employers for employee development or work/life balance. Identify something positive that drew you to the company, and that your readers can connect with.

2) Unique information about what makes you a top candidate for this job

To be seen as a top candidate for your dream job, you should be able to clearly articulate the story about the value you bring to that particular job. Your cover letter should highlight only the most important bullet points from your resume, and weave them into a coherent narrative about who you are as a professional. Pick just a few key experiences or skills listed in your resume, explain how they are highly relevant to the job you are trying to obtain, and give them the additional attention they deserve, but couldn’t be given in a resume.

Write a few sentences about the work you did to solve a major problem at your company, or explain how your character and work style helped your company save a major client account during difficult economic times. There are some stories that just can’t be appropriately conveyed in bullet points, and your cover letter provides the opportunity to do so.

This is also your opportunity to help a potential employer connect your skill set with the skill set needed in the available position. You’ve developed a variety of skills across different jobs throughout your career, and many of them will come into play in your new position.  Make sure the recruiter or hiring manager can connect the dots across time and space.

3) Strong desire to work in this specific role and at this specific company

In my personal opinion, this is the single most important job of a cover letter. When I worked on Wall Street, the recruiting was highly competitive. We often found ourselves in a situation where we had multiple strong candidates for a position and we could have hired any one of them. All other things being equal, we always wanted to find the candidate with the strongest interest in working at our company and doing the specific job at hand.

Make sure you don’t just say that you want to work for their company or in this particular job, but tell them why. Often, this will tie back to your first paragraph about how you are connected to the company. Maybe you’ve heard from a friend who works there that they are a great employer or that there is huge opportunity for professional growth. You might want this particular job because it’s the perfect blend of the two responsibilities you’ve most enjoyed having in your career. As much as possible, try to give them a unique, personal reason for your interest and don’t just repeat key points about the company that you found on their website.

In addition to highlighting your interest in the company and position, I recommend wrapping up by summarizing your qualifications. In one or two sentences, remind your readers why you are a top candidate using the information in the second paragraph of your cover letter. Also, don’t forget to provide your contact information, and a clear indication of how you expect to follow up with the company (or vice versa) at the appropriate time.

Follow this format, and you’ll have a strong cover letter that positions you as a top candidate.  You’ll impress recruiters and hiring managers alike, dramatically boosting the odds that you’ll land the interview you want.