Your resume is certainly one of the most important tools when it comes to finding a job, but it is not the only one you have. Most employers will expect the resume to be accompanied by a cover letter. This document gives you another opportunity to introduce yourself and can help to personalize your introduction even more than a resume alone. It is helpful to think of it as an introduction when you are not able to meet the potential employer face-to-face. For this reason, the letter needs to show who you are, as well as why he or she should hire you.
By the end of this article, you will know the importance of a cover letter as well as how to create one that will help you get interviews.
- What is a cover letter?
- What should be included?
- How do you format a cover letter?
The Purpose of a Cover Letter
A cover letter really does provide you with an opportunity to tell a potential employer exactly why you are the best candidate for a job. While your resume gives him or her a glimpse into your history and experience, the cover letter is a great way to point specifically to those things that you want noticed. You can also use it to go into a little more detail than is appropriate on a resume.
For example, if you are applying for a team leader position, you can not only mention that you have leadership training, but you can also talk a little about a specific project where you led your team to success because of your great training. The cover letter allows you to select the most important and relevant information from your resume to ensure that the potential employer is fully aware of it.
Even more so than your resume, you want the cover letter to be tailored to the specific job and even the company to which you are applying. While the job advertisement may not specify that you need to include a cover letter, you should always create one. It is the professional way to do things, and it really is in your best interest. By doing a little research on the company, you can also show your enthusiasm for their particular job opening, as well as your ability to pay attention to small but important details.
What to Include
When you read a job advertisement, it will usually list the requirements for the job. Your cover letter is the place where you can introduce the employer to just how well you fit those requirements. While you do not want to simply make a list of your skills (that is what a resume does, after all), you definitely want to find ways to explain that you have precisely the ones that they are looking for.
One thing that job seekers often overlook with the cover letter is the need to take action. Near the end of the letter, you should let the employer know what action you plan to take. A good choice is to let him or her know that you plan to follow up with a phone call to address any questions that he or she may have about your resume. Some candidates will even say something like, "I will call your office next Thursday to answer any questions you may have or to schedule an interview at your convenience." Of course, once you have made this declaration, it is necessary for you to follow through. Unbelievably, many jobs have been awarded simply because one applicant was conscientious enough to follow up with a phone call.
There are four main points that really need to be covered in this letter.
- What position are you applying for? This may seem obvious, but if the company is hiring for more than one position, you do not want them to have to guess which one you would like to fill.
- How did you hear about the position? Did you read it in the paper, find it on a website, or do you know someone at the company. Not only does the employer want to know if their advertising is working, but this also gives you a smooth introductory sentence or paragraph.
- Why should they hire you? This is where you lay out how you fit the requirements and why you are just an all around great candidate for the job.
- What action will you be taking? Are you planning to wait to hear from them, or will you be giving them a call?
Like your resume, a cover letter should be brief. In fact, it should not exceed one page, and when you include the recipient's address, the date, and the salutation and signature, that usually only leaves space for about three or four paragraphs. Obviously, you need to choose your words wisely. In addition, be sure that you proofread several times and even have a friend or family member check it for typos and grammatical errors.
Anatomy of a Cover Letter
Your cover letter should include your contact information. While you can start your letter off with that, it will take up a fair amount of space, so you might want to consider placing it in the "header," which is the area outside of the top margin. You can create your own letterhead this way while freeing up space to write an outstanding letter.
After your contact information, you should include that of the employer. If possible, you should address your letter directly to the person that will be doing the hiring, including his or her name and title. It is a good idea to call the company to get the name of the appropriate person and to ensure that you have the correct spelling.
The section should follow this format.
City, State, Zip Code
The salutation comes next. If you have done your homework, you should know the exact person to mention here, rather than using the much less professional, "To whom it may concern." You will want to use Mr. or Ms. in the salutation.
The body of the letter should include those topics covered above. The first paragraph is the introduction and tells the reader which job you are applying for and how you came to hear about it. If someone at the company told you about the opening, this is the place to mention that person by name. The next paragraph or two should focus on what you have to offer the company. Your goal here is to encourage the employer to contact you for an interview. The best way to do this is to show how you clearly meet their requirements and how your experience and background makes you such a great candidate.
The last paragraph is an opportunity to thank the employer for the opportunity and to let him or her know how you plan to follow up. It is common to call a week after you send in the cover letter and resume to ensure that all of your information arrived and to show your enthusiasm for the position. Follow this up with a complimentary close such as "Sincerely," and add a few spaces for your handwritten signature before typing your name below. Do not forget to sign the letter before putting it in the envelope.
Finally, when you do mail in you cover letter and resume, use a large manila envelope or a cover of some sort rather than folding your documents and placing them in a smaller envelope. This keeps them looking nicer and gives a more professional impression when they arrive.
Resumes in the Digital Age
Technology continues to advance at an amazing rate, and it has affected the way that companies hire and that people look for jobs. Being aware of the advantages and pitfalls of this new process can help improve your chances of landing the job.
In this section, you will learn some of the most important issues surrounding resume writing in the digital age.
- How do you make your resume "scannable?"
- What are keywords?
- What are the alternatives to a traditional resume?
The Scannable Resume
Hiring a new employee is a time intensive (and expensive) task. A company must determine what they need, advertise for it, sift through countless resumes, conduct interviews, make offers, and then train a new hire. This process often takes several months. Of course, most businesses do not have a lot of time and money to waste, so they have found ways to save some of both. One such method is the use of "electronic applicant tracking."
This process involves scanning resumes into a computer database so that they can be retrieved later. A hard copy of the resume will be scanned and "read" by optical character recognition (OCR) software. This type of software treats your resume very differently than a human would, so it can be extremely helpful to format your resume specifically for this purpose. If you have already written your traditional resume, it should not take too long to create a modified version that can be submitted for this purpose. In the end, you should have the nice version to give in person or to take to an interview, and a scannable version that can be used for databases.
What Are Keywords?
The employer is scanning all of the resumes he or she receives to save time. Once they have been scanned into a database, a computer can be used to quickly search through and pull up the ones that seem like they would be the best match. Of course, the computer has to have some way to determine whether a candidate might be qualified for the job. It does this by comparing each resume to a list of "keywords," or industry specific phrases. Resumes that include the right words and phrases will be flagged as potential good choices to invite to an interview.
Obviously, it is in your best interest to have a resume that includes the keywords that your potential employer will be using when doing a search through that database. While you cannot read his or her mind to find out just what words are best, you can make an educated guess as to the terms and phrases that are most likely. Start by looking at the job ad itself. If it calls for applicants to have experience with specific software, for example, you want to make sure that you have that exact software listed on your resume (assuming you know how to use it, of course).
In addition to looking at the ad to which you are applying, you should consider peeking at other ads from the same field. The terms and phrases that appear repeatedly will commonly be the same ones used for keyword searches of resume databases. If you know people in the field, you may also want to check with them, as they may have some insight into what is "hot" right now. Keywords can be quite general, such as "accounting," or very specific, like "Quicken." Your resume should usually contain about a dozen different keywords.
Keywords can be used in any part of the resume, and many times they appear in list format in the skills section. It is perfectly acceptable to include them in the more descriptive narrative sections, if you prefer. The important thing is to make sure that they are included in your document so that when an employer searches the database for "Adobe" experience, for example, yours will be included on that list.
While you may have put a considerable amount of time into making sure that your resume was attractive to the hiring manager, many of these details can be a hindrance for the optical character recognition (OCR) software. For this reason, you want to create a simplified version for this use. Consider all or some of the following formatting suggestions.
- Use lots of nouns, as they are most often used as keywords. (Instead of "directed activities," say "Activities Director.")
- Avoid formatting options like bullets. Instead, use dashes at the beginning of each list item.
- Use white, 8 ½ x 11" paper.
- Stick with a common font and avoid changing font sizes, using shadows, and so forth.
- Do not use columns or tables.
- Left-justify each line.
- If faxing in your resume, use the highest resolution possible.
If you are sending your resume electronically, you may want to find out if the company expects it as an attachment or in the body of your email, as some organizations will not open attachments. In this case, you will obviously not need to worry about the size of your paper, although those sent as attachments should still be formatted for 8½ x 11" paper in case the employer wants to print them out.
While the good old fashioned resume is still an important tool in the job search, some of the new advances that have appeared recently can augment it. For example, many job seekers choose to post electronic resumes. This may be a special page on a website or it may be the entire site. Just remember that anything you put online can be read by just about anyone with a computer, so if the rest of your site is not something that you want an employer to see, you might want to think twice. In fact, most employers will now do an Internet search on prospective employees, so consider taking down anything that might cause you a problem.
Online portfolios can take your resume to the next level. Artists commonly use these to introduce prospective clients and employers to their work. Digital photos can be included for visual artists, and MP3s and other audio formats can be shared, as well. Graphic designers and writers may also link out from this portfolio to show where their work is already being used on the web.
A rather new advance in job seeking is the "video resume." Because it is now so easy to record, upload, and host video, many people have chosen this route. It gets attention for a couple of reasons. First, it is still a novel concept. Someone who has gone to the effort to make a video may be seen as innovative, creative, and on the cutting edge. Another great aspect is that it allows the potential employer to put a face (and a voice) to a resume, rather than just scanning your name on the top of a piece of paper. It can almost serve as sort of a pre-interview to introduce you to the hiring manager or HR personnel.
Before you start setting up your video camera, keep a few things in mind. A video resume is definitely not appropriate for all fields. While it may work great for a sales professional, it may also be the kiss of death for a civic engineer. (Or vice versa.) Remember that employers often will not spend more than 15 seconds looking at a paper resume, so they are certainly not going to invest five minutes in watching you talk about yourself.
If you are in a field where this type of initiative will look good, make sure that the video lives up to the hype. Dress and groom yourself appropriately. Make sure that there is nothing inappropriate in the background. Also, be sure that you have a quiet environment with no distractions. Finally, the audio and video quality should be excellent. Each of these suggestions will help ensure that you create a video resume that portrays you as a professional.