Crafting an Eye-Catching Cover Letter

Many job seekers today are tempted to skip the cover letter. Think twice before doing so.
Experienced candidates may find that they don't need a cover letter to sell their skills to prospective employers. But this document can be invaluable for entry-level professionals or individuals who seek a career change. A thoughtfully written letter can distinguish these individuals from the crowd by allowing them to go into greater detail about the unique skills and qualifications that make them the best fit for the role.

Following are some tips for creating an eye-catching cover letter.

1. Avoid a generic salutation
If possible, don't start your note with "To whom it may concern" or "Dear sir or madam." Instead, call the company to ask the hiring manager's name (as well as the correct spelling) and title if it's not apparent in the job posting. Addressing the letter to a specific individual will demonstrate both motivation and resourcefulness.

2. Keep it focused
Hiring managers don't want to read a novel, so limit your note to two or three short paragraphs. Explain why the job interests you and what qualities you can bring to the position. Your interest in rock climbing isn't applicable unless you are applying to a firm that caters to sports enthusiasts, for example.

3. Customize the content
It's important to target each letter to the actual job opening. You can determine which professional accomplishments to focus on by looking at the job posting. For example, if you are applying for a position that involves managing a small team, play up your interpersonal skills and previous experience overseeing small groups. Expand upon one or two key points from your résumé -- perhaps how you oversaw a successful product launch -- to better key into the potential employer's needs.

4. Showcase your top assets
There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness. Saying you are the best "Web designer west of the Rockies" is less effective than explaining how your redesign of a client's Web site increased sales for the company by 10 percent or noting that you won a prestigious award for your work.

5. Address any concerns
The cover letter also is a place to address any issues that may give a hiring manager pause, such as gaps in employment. Briefly explain why you were out of work and, more important, what you have been doing since then to keep your skills up-to-date.

6. Don't make demands
Avoid asking for a specific salary or making other work-related demands ("I prefer working from home every Friday"). The purpose of your letter is to explain what you can do for the company, not vice versa.

7. Be honest
Don't stretch the truth about your accomplishments. Even seemingly minor misrepresentations -- saying you managed the daily operations of a firm's help desk when you actually co-managed it, for example -- can come back to haunt you during the reference or background check process.

8. Check for errors
A sure way to take yourself out of the running for a job is to have a typo or grammatical mistake in your cover letter. Ask a trusted friend or family member to review the document before you send it out. Seventy-six percent of executives we interviewed said just one or two typos in a résumé would remove applicants from consideration for a job; 40 percent said it takes only one typo to rule candidates out.

9. Find a place
When applying for a position electronically, paste your cover letter into the body of the e-mail message you send to the hiring manager or into the appropriate space on an online application, if possible. Keep in mind that not all online job services will allow you to take this step.

When well-crafted and targeted to the opportunity and employer, a cover letter can give you a significant edge over the competition. If you're searching for your first job or looking to take your career in a new direction, don't miss this chance to make a strong first impression and set yourself apart from other contenders.