How to Write a Better Job Application Cover Letter

A good rule of thumb is to keep a job application cover letter to just three paragraphs. The purpose here is to pique an employer's interest, provide a glimpse of your business writing talents, and of course, work towards getting an interview.

A well-crafted cover letter is as important as one's résumé. It sets the tone for everything that follows. It is often an employer's first exposure to you, the basis of their first impression.

Some HR people read the cover letter first and if intrigued move on to the résumé. I happen to be a start-with-the-résumé person, and if intrigued, I move on to read the cover letter.

Either way, it is your first chance to introduce yourself and explain why you're the right person for the job. That's a weighty burden. A cover letter should be brief and introductory, neither a synopsis of your job history nor a lengthy dissertation.

When writing a cover letter, avoid describing your personal attributes with terms like "assertive" and "highly motivated." Rather, list career accomplishments that demonstrate appealing skills and character strengths. Don't tell the potential employer that you're a hard worker who gets results. Show them.

Here is what I recommend:

Paragraph #1: In the first line or two, clearly identify the position you are seeking. You don't want the reader trying to guess your intentions. They won't bother. You should note where and how you learned of the job opening. Hopefully, you can reference someone known by the recipient of the letter. Be straight and to the point. You want the hiring manager or initial person deciding the fate of your application to know exactly where to direct your letter.

Here's an example:

Dear Ms. Smith:

At the suggestion of Rick O'Connell, I'm writing to apply for the position of Junior Manager in the carbonized peas department at Acme Farms Inc. Rick is the director of processing at Whole Planet Cogs & Wheels, a colleague and mentor. He thought we might be a good match.

As a long-time admirer of Acme, I'm eager to explore that possibility.

Paragraph #2: This paragraph demonstrates that you can get the job done. It is a bridge connecting the job skills listed on your accompanying résumé with the requirements of the available position. Information that you might include here are details of related jobs, assignments or accomplishments, similarities to your current or most recent position and an explanation of why you believe you would excel at the job.

But don't stop there. Back up your points with quantifiable proof of your success and achievements, such as numbers, statistics, programs established and the like.

One technique is to compare listed requirements of a position with your particular experience. To wit:

At Whole Planet, I oversee the small pegs division. I'm responsible for a 20-person team that creates, markets and sells more than 1.2 million small pegs each year, bringing Whole Planet more than $5 million in revenue annually.

I've been with Whole Planet for six years, starting as an apprentice on the production floor where I learned the basics of manufacturing processes and systems. I have since pursued a rigorous program of professional development and improvement, with current licenses in online marketing and multi-platform distribution and a credential in quick-count carbonization.

Paragraph #3: In this final paragraph, deliver your closing pitch. Confidently restate your interest in the job and thank the potential employer. Be sure to request the next step in the employment process—an interview. Include information about how best to contact you to schedule a meeting or interview. Perhaps repeat your phone number and email address.

Here's an example:

Like Rick, I think I'm a good fit with Acme. I look forward to discussing with you soon how my background and experience can benefit your company. I hope it will be convenient for you if I call at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday the 12th. I can be reached via email anytime at yourname@ or by phone at (555) 555-1234. Thank you again for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Notice that the applicant took responsibility for making the first  initiative. You don't want to put the burden on HR because while they may be impressed with your qualifications, your cover letter and references may get buried in a pile on their desk.

Categories: Breaking Away, Job Tips with Phil Blair