I’ve read a lot of cover letters throughout my career. When I was a fellowship program manager, I reviewed them in consideration for more than 60 open positions each year. So I saw it all–the good, the bad, and the standout examples that I can still remember.
As a result, I’ve become the go-to friend when people need feedback on their job applications. Based on my own experience putting people in the “yes” (and “no”) pile, I’m able to give these cover letters a quick scan and immediately identify what’ll turn a hiring manager off.
While I can’t give you insight into every person’s head who’ll be reading your materials, I can share with you the feedback that I give my own loved ones.
1. The Basics
First things first, I skim the document for anything that could be disqualifying. That includes typos, a “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” salutation, or a vibe so non-specific that it reeks of find-replace. I know it seems harsh, but when a hiring manager sees any one of these things, she reads it as, “I didn’t take my time with this, and I don’t really care about working here.” So she’s likely to pass.
Another thing I look for in this initial read-through is tone. Even if you’re applying to your dream company, you don’t want to come off like you think someone entertaining your candidacy is the same as him offering you water at the end of a lengthy hike. You don’t need to thank the hiring manager so incredibly much for reading your application–that’s his job. If you align considering your application with the biggest favor ever, you’ll make the other person think it’s because you’re desperate.
So, skip effusive thanks and demonstrate genuine interest by writing a cover letter that connects the dots between your experience and the requirements of the position. Telling the reader what you’ve accomplished and how it directly translates to meeting the company’s needs is always a better use of space than gushing.
2. The Opening Sentence
If your first line reads: “I am writing to apply for [job] at [company],” I will delete it and suggest a swap every time. (Yes, every single time.) When a hiring manager sees that, she won’t think, “How thoughtful of the applicant to remind me what I’m reading!” Her reaction will be much closer to, “boring,” “meh,” or even “next!”
Compare it to one of these statements:
I’ve wanted to work in education ever since my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Dorchester, helped me discover a love of reading.
My approach to management is simple: I strive to be the kind of leader I’d want to work for.
In my three years at [prior company], I increased our average quarterly sales by [percentage].
See how these examples make you want to keep reading? That’s half the battle right there. Additionally, it makes you memorable, which’ll help when you’re competing against a sea of applicants.
To try it out for yourself, pick a jumping-off point. It could be something about you or an aspect of the job description that you’re really drawn to. Then, open a blank document and just free-write (translation: write whatever comes to mind) for 10 minutes. Some of the sentences you come up with will sound embarrassing or lame: That’s fine–no one has to see those! Look for the sentence that’s most engaging and see how it reads as the opening line for your cover letter.
3. The Examples
Most often, people send me just their cover letter and resume, so I don’t have the benefit of reviewing the position description. And yet, whenever a letter follows the format of “I am skilled at [skill], [skill], [skill], as evidenced by my time at [place].” Or “You’re looking for [skill], and I am a talented [skill], ” I could pretty much re-create it. Surprise: that’s actually not a good thing.
Again, the goal isn’t just to show you’re qualified: It’s to make the case that you’re more qualified than all the other applicants. You want to make clear what distinguishes you, so the hiring manager can see why you’re worth following up with to learn more. And–again–you want to be memorable.
If you write a laundry list, it’ll blend into every other submission formatted the same way. So, just like you went with a unique opener, do the same with your examples. Sure, you might still include lists of skills, but break those up with anecdotes or splashes of personality.
Here’s a real, two-line excerpt from a cover letter I’ve written before:
If I’m in a conference room and the video isn’t working, I’m not the sort to simply call IT and wait. I’ll also (gracefully) crawl under the table, and check that everything is properly plugged in.
A couple lines like this will not only lighten up your letter, but also highlight your soft skills. I got the point across that I’m a take-charge problem solver, without saying, “I’m a take-charge problem solver.” Plus the “(gracefully)” shows that I don’t take myself too seriously–even in a job application. If your submission follows the same list-type format all the way through, see if you can’t pepper in an example or anecdote that’ll add some personality.
You want your cover letter to stand out for all the right reasons. So, before you click submit, take a few minutes to make sure you’re putting your best (and most memorable) foot forward.
Related Video: This Is What People Really Think Of Your Resumé
This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission.
You’ve just hit “send” on an online application. And now all you can do is wait.
Or is it? What if you could increase the odds of being invited in for a job interview—potentially by a large margin—by adding just one step to your overall job search process?
Hey, everyone! Good news. You can. And here’s that magical step:
Find and endear yourself to the hiring manager at the company you just applied to work for.
Sound super scary? It does for a lot of people—so much so that they never even try to get to a key decision maker when taking a run at a new job; they just apply online and hope for the best.
Unfortunately, this is an incredibly unreliable way to capture the attention of the very person you most need to influence. Why? Because in applying via an online application to a medium or large company, you all but guarantee that your resume and cover letter will first need to pass through at least two lines of review before they’re in the right hands.
Worse, one of those reviewers isn’t even a human; it’s computer scanning software (also known as an ATS or applicant tracking system ). The kicker? That computer isn’t always so amazing at determining how amazing you really are. In fact, a lot of times it rather sucks at it.
Folks, here’s the deal. In the game of job search, the person who gets to the hiring manager first—and makes a great impression with him or her—is usually the winner. Few people jump for joy when it’s time to plow through a bunch of random resumes that came in among a giant clump of online applicants. Not even close.
So, if you can somehow get on this person’s radar directly—and make him or her quickly see what an incredible, likable, and closely matched candidate you are, you make his or her job easier and stack the cards in your favor.
The question then is: How do you find these incredibly important people? And, once you do, how to you get to them in a way that will positively impact your candidacy?
Here are three completely survivable tactics to strongly consider:
1. Do a People Search on LinkedIn
This is the most straightforward way to figure this out. Simply head over to LinkedIn and, in the search box, enter in the company name and a couple of key words that would likely describe the title of the person in charge of the department you’re attempting to join.
After you hit “search,” you’ll see some advanced search options on the left column of the screen. Check the box “People” so that you’re only seeing people (and not companies or groups). Also check “Current Company” so that you’re only viewing people who are current employees.
And then take a little scroll through the list. See someone who looks like the obvious person? Well then, you’re in business. Decide how you’re going to approach and reach out directly.
Consider a conversation that goes something like this:
“Hi Sarah—I’m [YOUR NAME], a digital marketing strategist with a direct background within the beauty industry. I’ve had my eye on [COMPANY] forever, so when I saw that you were looking for a manager for your digital team, I applied right away. But I also wanted to introduce myself directly because I think my background matches up so closely with what you seem to be seeking.”
Short, sweet, and introduces yourself as a direct match. Hiring managers like direct matches.
But what do you do if you can’t find an obvious person using this technique?
Try this as your second line of attack:
2. Enlist Someone Who Works There to Help You
Say you’re scrolling through that list on LinkedIn and you see a handful of people who could potentially be the hiring manager, but you’re unsure if you’ve got the right one. Rather than risk getting it wrong, see if you can find someone who appears to be in a peer level role within the same (or a similar) department as the one you want.
Approach this person with something like this:
“Hi Bill—You and I are both members of the Chicago Marketing Association group here on LinkedIn. I happened to notice you’re on the digital strategy team at [COMPANY]. I’ve had my eye on [COMPANY] forever—may I ask you a couple of very quick questions about your experience there?”
Assuming Bill says yes, ask your quick questions and then, after he responds, try and keep a bit of casual conversation going. Once you’ve built up a bit of rapport, thank him profusely for his time and end the conversation with:
“Real quick. I noticed that [COMPANY] is looking for a marketing coordinator. Would you happen to know who the best person for me to contact would be, to get a bit more info about this role?”
Chances are, he’ll give you the name. Better yet, he may make the introduction.
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3. Pick Up the Phone and Call
It mystifies me how gun-shy we’ve all become about picking up the gosh-darned phone and, gasp, communicating directly with people. You want a true shot at this job? Quit hiding behind the anonymous online application process and dial the freaking phone.
Just be sure and do so carefully and strategically.
To determine who the hiring manager is, I’d suggest simply calling the company’s main number and schmoozing it up with the person who answers the phone. Gaining an ally with the gatekeeper could get you everywhere.
The conversation might go like this:
“Hi there. I am one of the candidates for the digital marketing manager role that’s open at [COMPANY]. I’ve misplaced the notepad I had with all of the hiring manager’s contact information on it. I’m so embarrassed. Can you help me out with this?”
You get the drift. Act like you’re somehow already in conversation with this person, yet have lost her contact info. Now, use care with the wording. Note that, in the above, if the gatekeeper were to go to this person and tell her about the conversation, she probably wouldn’t bat an eye because (assuming you already applied online) you are a candidate, and you very well could have her email address without her awareness.
My point: Don’t get caught in a big, fat lie as you attempt to get a name because it could totally backfire on you.
But do pull out the stops in trying to introduce yourself directly. If you can get to the right person and sell yourself directly to him or her, you’re in a much, much better position than if you sit around wringing your hands, paying to God your stuff makes it through the blind mailbox.
Someone in this competition is going to get directly to a decision maker.
Shouldn’t that someone be you?