Quick Tips For Cover Letters — Part 3: Content

The past two weeks we've discussed quick ideas on style and tone in cover letter writing.  This week it's all about the content — what to include and not to include in  your application letters.  Since it's hard to keep motivated while writing your tenth application letter of the day, the hope is that this article — and the series — will give you some best practices to employ.  Practices that ultimately work and help you to land that next professional opportunity.

So what sorts of things should we include and what shouldn't we?  Sometimes when we write the letters we have a tendency to include everything we can about ourselves — not just about our work histories but also about our personal lives.  On the flip-side, we might also swing to the opposite extreme and share way too little of anything with professional substance.  The goal is to create an easily read, comprehensive letter that speaks to the specific job at hand.

Think of the cover letter as four to five paragraphs that need filling.  Since it's only a few short paragraphs, what we choose to highlight has to be coherent, relevant and set us apart from the other applicants.  Rather a tall order for a letter that's going to be about 700 to 800 words!  And to be honest, we won't shine in all of these areas every single time.  If you review cover letters you wrote a few years ago, you will probably see sentences that you could have improved upon.  (And that, my friend, is the first tip of the day: look at old cover letters that were successful in helping you net interviews.  Use these old letters as guides to help you craft even better ones today!) )

Our first paragraph will be about two or three sentences long.  This should state the job we are applying for and where we discovered the advertisement.  If someone recommended that you contact the hiring manager, then this is the place to share their name.  The second aspect of this paragraph is a general statement that basically says "I'm certain that if you read my resume and cover letter you will see that I am an excellent candidate for the position."  But you don't want to say it like that.  Try something a bit more subtle, such as "After reviewing my credentials, I think you will find that my skill sets of marketing, sales and customer service are an excellent fit to the assistant manager opening that you are seeking to fill."

Now paragraphs two to four are the places that you will plop in your professional experience.  Here you want to start with your current or most recent position and work backwards sharing only those aspects of your experience which are relevant to the advertised job.  This can be hard since our egos will want to exclaim "Look how much more I can do for you!"  The goal is to sound perfectly qualified for the job — not under or overqualified.

Items to include in these paragraphs are accomplishments ("This year I was voted Salesperson of the Year."), statistical facts ("I brought in over $500,000 in new business last year."), and where you went over and above the call of duty ("During the company's down time each winter I reviewed the customer database to find old clients that the sales team could reconnect with and contact.").  Also, skip the entry-level or basic-level work that you might do or have done in your present or previous roles.  If you are in marketing, "composed press releases" is not as impressive as "maintained a database of 1,000 press contacts, as well as drafted press releases."  One is something everyone in the marketing department might be expected to know, the other is a more specialized job function.

Things specifically not to include in your application letters are personal information like your social security number, age, birthday, and any hobbies or associations that reveal demographic information.  That said, you can reveal personal information if it's a relevant job skill (organizing girl scout and PTA trips); you want people to be aware of some personal aspect of yourself (I'm a part of the LGBT community and want an employer who accepts that); or explains a gap in your work history ("For the past five years I have been out of the workplace caring for a sick family member.).  Otherwise, things like "I devote all my time to playing skee ball at the local arcade" is best kept for employee lunches after you have been hired.

And while you may be tempted, and it may seem like a good idea; don't rely too heavily on bulleted lists.  Instead keep the cover letter short and focused.  View it is an adjunct to the resume — like an appetizer before the main part of meal.  It is designed to wet the appetite and give the recruiter a starting place to get to know you.

And lastly, in the final paragraph you reiterate your interest in the position, how best to contact you, specify any attachments you have included with the email application, your salary requirements and where the hiring manager can find your online portfolio or writing samples (if those are required).  You should also thank them for their time and then sign off with a simple closing such as "Sincerely."

And what if the potential employer has requested your salary requirements?  Include them in the form of a range "$58,000 to $62,000 per year" or as "my salary requirements are in the $60,000 range."  Also place a disclaimer such as "are negotiable depending upon the benefits package provided" to show that there is some flexibility.  But be honest — if you want $60,000 and they are only paying $32,000, then there is no point in interviewing for the job!

As you can see, the bulk of the letter is in the middle and it's here in the "selling ourselves" that most of us have a hard time staying focused and weaving a letter that stands out to the recruiter.  But don't be daunted, approach the entire process creatively and if needed break the letter up into parts — start with the end, then move to the beginning, then hit the midsection — whatever works for you to draft letters that bring you new job opportunities.  Good luck!