If you're like most job seekers, you're not taking advantage of one of the best ways to get a hiring manager's attention: writing a great cover letter.
Cover letters can be what gets you pulled out of a stack of applications and called for an interview. They can make the difference between hearing nothing from an employer and eventually getting offered a job.
Cover letters are crucial to hiring managers who understand that people are more than just their work experience -- that people have personalities, motivations, habits and other reasons they'd be great at a particular job that aren't easily seen from a résumé. After all, if this weren't true, employers wouldn't even need to bother to interview candidates; they could just screen résumés, verify that candidates' experience and accomplishments were accurate and then hire the person with the best résumé.
But that's not how it works, and so when done well, a cover letter takes a first step at explaining that additional piece of what you're all about.
Here's how to write a compelling cover letter that will get you interviews.
1. Show personal interest in the particular job that you're applying for. A strong cover letter will make a convincing case that you're truly excited about the opportunity (without resorting to generic reasons that you could use when writing to every other company too). What grabbed you about the job description or the company? Why would you prefer this job over others out there? Why do you think you'd be great at it? What in your background demonstrates that you'd excel at the work?
2. Don't summarize your résumé. Too often, job seekers simply summarize the contents of their résumé in their cover letter. With such limited initial contact, you do yourself a disservice if you use a whole page of your application to simply repeat the contents of the other pages. The cover letter should add something new to your candidacy -- information that doesn't belong on your résumé like personal traits, work habits, why you're interested in the job, maybe even a reference to feedback from a previous manager. Speaking of which ...
3. If something makes you especially well-suited for the job aside from what's on your résumé, mention it. For example, maybe the position requires an inordinate degree of meticulousness and you frequently get teased for being obsessive about details. That's a perfect thing to mention in a cover letter, and it's information that wouldn't be found on your résumé. If you're having trouble thinking of those qualities, try thinking about what you would tell a friend if you were explaining why you were excited about this particular job and why you think you would be great at it. Does that explanation add anything that your friend couldn't get from just looking at your résumé? It probably does -- and that's what you want to convey.
4. Stay away from hyperbole. Statements like "I'm the best candidate for the job" and "You won't find a candidate better qualified than me" come across as naive. You have no way of knowing what the rest of the candidate pool looks like, and only the hiring manager is equipped to assess your candidacy against that pool. Keep the focus on why you'd excel at the job without trying to put down your competition. Your cover letter shouldn't sound like an infomercial.
5. If you know you're overqualified but you don't mind, explain that in your cover letter. If you don't address it up front, many hiring managers will assume that you wouldn't be enthusiastic about the job without ever giving you a chance to tell them why you're interested anyway.
6. Be conversational. Job seekers sometimes feel that a cover letter should be as formal as possible, but the best cover letters are written in a conversational, engaging tone. Of course, don't be overly casual; don't use slang, and pay careful attention to things like grammar and spelling. But your tone and the language should be conversational, warm and engaging.
7. In case it's not obvious from the above, don't use a form letter. Hiring managers can tell the difference between a letter that you're sending with all your applications and a letter that you wrote specifically for this job. If your letter works for all the jobs you're applying to, that's a sign that it needs to be more customized.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.