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How to Write a Great Cover Letter

Alison Green

When you're applying for jobs, your cover letter can be the determining factor in whether you hear nothing from an employer or whether you get called for an interview. And yet job seekers regularly give their cover letters short shrift -- writing deadly dull missives that make hiring managers' eyes glaze over or using them simply to summarize their resumes.

A cover letter alone isn't likely to get you a job if you're woefully underqualified, but if you're one in a sea of similarly qualified candidates, a great cover letter can be what spurs an employer to pull your resume out of the stack and call you. That's because people are more than just their work experience. They have personalities, motivations, habits and other reasons they'd be great at a particular job that aren't always easily seen from a resume. A good letter will demonstrate those things and pique a hiring manager's interest in a way that a boring form letter won't.

[See: 10 Ways to Perfect Your Personal Brand.]

Here's how you can write a strong, compelling cover letter that will make employers want to interview you.

1. First and foremost, don't summarize your resume. This is the most common approach people take when writing about their career in a cover letter, and it does them an incredible disservice. Think about it: When you apply for a job, you have just a few pages to show why you'd excel at the position. Why would you squander a whole page just repeating what's in the rest of your application materials? Instead, your cover letter should add something new to your candidacy.

2. Use your cover letter to share information that doesn't go on your resume, like personal traits, work habits, why you'd excel at the job and maybe even a reference to feedback from a previous manager. For example, maybe the position requires an unusual degree of meticulousness and you frequently get teased for being obsessive about details. That's information that wouldn't be found on your resume, but it can go in your cover letter. Or maybe you thrive on bringing order to chaos or your old boss told you that you were the fastest sales closer she'd ever seen. Put it in the letter.

A good trick is to pretend you're explaining to a friend why you're excited about the job and think you'd be great at it. You probably wouldn't stiffly recite your work history; you'd probably talk about what you're good at and how you'd approach the work. That's what you want to convey in your cover letter, too.

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3. Don't be too salesy. Stay away from hyperbole like "I'm the best candidate for this job" and "You won't find anyone better qualified than me." Not only do those kinds of statements come across as naive because you can't possibly know what other candidates are in the mix, but hiring managers don't want to feel like you're trying to sell them on you. From their side, the hiring process is about making an honest assessment of whether you're a good match for the job. Hyperbole gets in the way of that and feels too aggressive to a lot of people.

4. Keep it conversational. If you were taught that all business writing should be formal to the point of stiffness, it's time to jettison that belief and modernize your approach. The best cover letters are written in a warm, conversational tone -- like the one you might use when writing to a colleague whom you like very much but don't know well. You'll be far more likely to connect with your reader if you write in your natural voice.

5. Customize your letter to fit the job. Hopefully this is obvious from the above, but you should not be sending out the same cover letter to every job you're applying for. You don't have to write from scratch every time, but you should do enough customization that you're speaking with nuance to the specifics of this particular position. The hiring manager should have no doubt that you wrote to them because you're excited about this company and position, not wonder if they've received the exact same application packet you sent to 100 other jobs.

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6. If there's anything a little wonky about your candidacy, address it up front. For example, if you're overqualified for the position, make a point of acknowledging it and explaining why you're interested in the job anyway. If you're currently living across the country from where the position is located but have plans to move there soon, mention that. If all your experience is in a different industry but you're actively working to transition into this one, explain that and talk about why. If hiring managers have large enough unanswered questions about your candidacy, it's sometimes easier just to move on to a different candidate. So by addressing those likely concerns right up front in your cover letter, you're providing the information that might put those concerns to rest -- and get you an interview invitation.

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