Quick Tips For Cover Letters — Part 1: Style

In the job hunting experience, the cover letter can be the most deadening part of the whole process.  The sitting down, facing a computer and trying to think of wonderful things to say about yourself — things which jive with the ad that you are answering — can be daunting.  Even if you work from a template, the entire thing can be all for naught if you make a typo or inadvertently forget to change the job title from one application to the next.  Mix in your own job hunting frustrations and you know why people put off answering ads until Sunday night.

Recently I was reviewing sample cover letters offered online by professional resume writers.  While much of what they had written was very good, I was amazed to see a few glaring errors within the samples.  From experience, I know that composing cover letters can often be the longest, and most tedious, part of the job hunting process.  So I've put together a few things you might want to consider when writing your own letters.  This three article series will cover style, tone and content.  First let's focus on style…

1.  Good writing shines through!
A badly written cover letter that is not concise and to the point, but meanders around without saying much will sabotage even the most qualified candidate.  However, good writing can help the most unqualified candidate be contacted for a phone interview.  So if your writing skills are not the greatest, consider practicing them by taking a writing course (free or for-pay), reading classic fiction, doing crosswords or volunteering in a position that will require a small amount of writing.  Something to help you develop your writing skills.  Alternatively, you can hire a professional or friend to write several sample letters, which are honed to specific jobs titles that you will be applying.

2.  Keep the tenses, grammar and spelling error free!
This can be the hardest for many people — make sure your letter is as error free as possible.  Many hiring managers simple use the errors on a resume or cover letter as one way to quickly weed out less desirable candidates.  So proof your letters well!  And don't get mixed up in tenses.  In a previous position, your responsibilities "included;" but in your present position, your responsibilities "include."  There's a difference — one is past tense, the other is present — learn to differentiate.  If need be, read your cover letter aloud to make sure it flows well and sounds coherent.  Also, have a friend read a few of them to see if they understand what you are attempting to say.  And of course use spell check!  As for complete sentence structure — try not to include run-on or short choppy sentences.  A grasp of when a colon, semicolon and comma are needed is a great benefit.

3.  Stay down to earth!
Maybe you like to write in a florid, long-winded manner or maybe you just have a naturally large vocabulary.  Or perhaps, you hope to impress your reader with your passionate, esoteric allegories.  Don't — unless you know your reader is a florid, long-winded, passionate, esoteric.  You may be more educated than some of the people who will be reading your resume, don't purposely remind them of that.  You may be better read than the individuals who will be interviewing you, let them realize that after you have the job.  You don't have to hide your light under a bushel basket, but neither do you have to shine your light directly into the eyes of those who are in a hiring position.  Keep it direct and to the point, while expanding upon your skill set.  Use a variety of adjectives, compare your resume to the job ad and call to the reader's attention where you fit the job like a glove.

4.  Keep the ego in check!
Not every sentence should start with "I."  Yes, the cover letter and resume are about you — everyone knows that.  But if you structure your sentences to bridge the distance between you and the job, pointing out where you fit the job requirements, then you will have sentences that say more than "I handled…" "I managed…" "I can…"  The cover letter can be thought of as a letter that contains roughly fifteen to twenty sentences.  If you weed out the first two sentences for your intro and the last two to three sentences for your ending, that leaves ten to sixteen sentences to wow your reader with how you could possibly be the best candidate.  So think about starting sentences with what the employer requires and then describe how your skill set fills those requirements.

5.  Don't say that you will call or visit them uninvited!
End the letter politely, reiterate your interest and make sure they have a phone number and email address to reach you.  But don't say "I will call you in a few days to discuss the position and set up a time that we can meet."  You're not storming the Bastille!  They may not even look at your resume in a few days.  The hiring process can take months — talk to anyone who has interviewed with a government agency, university or other large bureaucracy — so don't turn your lovely cover letter into a stalker moment.  No one wants to feel pressured and few people want to tell you over the phone, "We have no interest in interviewing you."

Next time, we will discuss tone.   Passive, active or apathetic — which works best for you?