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Mastering the Modern Cover Letter How to Stand Out in the Stack
Mastering the Modern Cover Letter How to Stand Out in the Stack

Pop quiz: How do you craft an effective cover letter? Do you a) outline your work history in full detail, b) grab a cover letter template off the Web and slap your name on it, c) walk the prospective employer through everything you're hoping to get out of a new job, or d) none of the above?

The answer, as you’ve probably guessed, is d. With many employers today indicating they no longer place much stock in cover letters – given how many letters are lazy, formulaic and don't add any real value – the goal is to submit one that will really wow the reader and highlight the most intriguing, relevant reasons you'd be a great hire.

To help you assemble a cover letter that might make a real difference, and that will add real value to your application, I’d encourage you to follow a three-part approach that has proven effective for many job seekers over the years. I’ve dubbed this approach the sandwich formula, and here's a step-by-step breakdown of how it works.

  1. Start simple.

    Consider the opening paragraph of your letter as the first slice of bread in your cover letter sandwich. There's no need to be highly creative with this part of the letter. Simply identify the specific job opportunity you're applying to, include a job number (if one was mentioned in the job advertisement), and mention where you spotted the lead or how it came to your attention.

    Since some larger employers are seeking to fill dozens or even hundreds of open positions at any one time, all you need to do at this point is make sure the reader is clear about which of their opportunities you're interested in pursuing. Then move on.

  2. Get to the heart of the matter.

    Once you've identified the job you're targeting, it's time to move on to the next paragraph and give the reader some real meat to chew on in terms of a few lines (or bullets) of customized, high-impact content that will wake them up and capture their imagination.

    To be clear, this doesn't mean retelling your whole life story or walking the reader through a long litany of all your skills, credentials and qualifications. That's not interesting to them, whatsoever, since they know as soon as they turn the page they'll see this exact same content on your resume. So while you can allude to your resume at this point, don't recycle it verbatim. Instead, put your thinking cap on and focus their attention on several key points and customized thoughts that go beyond the resume and show you've thought hard about the job at hand and what you could bring to it. The goal here is to stand out, differentiate yourself, and show you've gone above and beyond in terms of contemplating how you could meet the employer's needs.

    For example, you might build the heart of your letter around several bullets showcasing your expertise in the handful of areas the employer seems to value most. If the company seems to be placing a high value on Microsoft Excel skills, in other words, you could provide them with a deeper breakdown of the particular features of Excel you've used to date (e.g., pivot tables, macros, conditional formatting) to enhance your credibility in this area. Alternatively, you could discuss several specific projects where you've applied these skills or perhaps share a few personal insights, observations or words of wisdom you have about the work responsibilities in question.

    Again, the key in the middle part of the letter is to be creative, thoughtful and to demonstrate an uncommon understanding of the employer's needs. Go big or go home. Make it painfully obvious that you've carefully considered their requirements and aren't just taking the easy way out by sending in a generic form letter. If you find yourself chronically bored writing your own cover letters, after all, there's a good chance your target employers are going to be bored reading them!

  3. Wrap things up.

    Now it’s time to finish building your sandwich. In the final paragraph of your letter, all you need to do is wind things down with a polite, enthusiastic sentence or two that reiterates your interest in the opportunity, provides your contact information and invites the reader to contact you regarding next steps. This final slice of bread, like the first one, doesn't take a lot of originality. Simply create and reuse some standard language in this section to wrap things up, freeing up more time to concentrate on the important part, which is the customized filling in between.

When all is said and done, the emphasis placed on your cover letter is going to vary heavily from company to company, but it’s safe to say that a relevant, well-written cover letter can still make a big difference in helping your application rise to the top. Just make sure you focus on quality, not quantity, and demonstrate that you're not the type of employee who simply goes through the motions and takes the easy way out!

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Matt Youngquist

Guest writer Matt Youngquist is a recognized career coaching expert and LinkedIn trainer in the greater Seattle area. He’s the founder and president of Career Horizons, where he helps clients across the Pacific Northwest tackle the challenges of job hunting and employment transition.

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