As a job recruiter and owner of multiple resume writing services, I’ve read thousands of cover letters and resumes, and I have a secret to share with you – most of them are spectacularly underwhelming! Don’t worry though, because this is actually good news. In fact, you should be ecstatic, because while most job candidates completely miss the mark with their applications, you can be one of the few who absolutely knock it out of the park.
Dissecting the cover letter
Here’s the bottom line. A company is going to hire you either because you’re exceptionally qualified for the job, or because you’re extremely likable and a good cultural fit.
While your resume is intended to lay out the cold hard facts, your cover letter is meant to convey more personality and flare. The goal of your cover letter should be to make yourself as memorable as possible. That means writing a unique cover letter for each and every job you apply to. No templates. No pre-written nonsense. Instead, try some of these techniques.
1. Tell a compelling story
Everyone loves a good story, and job recruiters are no exception. What makes this company your go-to choice? Why is this company special to you? Perhaps you’re attracted to the workplace culture, or perhaps you’ve always admired the business philosophy that the company lives by. No company wants to feel as though it’s just another firm among the hundreds that you mass e-mailed your cover letter to, so spell out exactly why you think this company, in particular, would be a great fit for you.
2. Address the recruiter by name
Now it’s fine to just use “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” when addressing the recruiter. In fact, I can tell you from experience that most people use precisely these words. However, I can also tell you that most people don’t get the job.
If you want to make a strong impression, then take the time to find out who you’re addressing. Of course, this may not be so easy. You may have to make a few phone calls or try several Google searches until you find the right name. But hey, the harder it is to do, the less likely other job applicants will do it and the more impressed the recruiter will be with you.
3. Inject some humor…if you can pull it off
It’s a dangerous approach, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. While an awkward or inappropriate joke might downright ruin your chances, a well-timed use of humor can push a recruiter who’s on the fence over to your side. Remember that one of the main goals of a cover letter is to exhibit your personality, and humor can certainly accomplish that. It’s simply a matter of stellar execution.
4. Avoid overused phrases
The average Joe’s cover letter is going to be extremely generic. It’ll contain banal expressions such as “Thank you for taking the time to look at my resume” or “I believe that my set of skills make me a great fit for the job.” While none of these lines hurt your chance of getting the job, they certainly don’t help either. Recruiters who go through hundreds of cover letters every day get tired of these clichés, and they’re waiting for something new and refreshing to come along.
Analyzing the resume
While cover letters act as attention grabbers that show off your likability and make you stand out, resumes tend to be too formal to have the same effect. Instead, a job-winning resume should be written with one goal in mind: to convince the hiring manager that you are someone who has the skills and experience to excel in the job. To make this case, here are some of the most important things you should do that most job applicants don’t.
1. Copy the job description
Both recruiters and applicant tracking systems will be looking for exact keywords on your resume that match the job description. You should always tweak your resume for every job you apply to and simply mimic the description. For example, if the job overview for a software engineering position requires that candidates have knowledge of object-oriented design and you took a course on object-oriented programming in college, note it on your resume!
2. Write more about what’s relevant
Let’s say you have experience in multiple industries. Perhaps you worked as an accountant for 6 years, a financial analyst for 3, a tax auditor for 1, and now you have your eyes set on a portfolio manager position. While it might usually make sense to include a very lengthy section on your resume about what you did in accounting simply because it’s the field you have the most experience in, that isn’t always the case…at least not here.
Your goal for this job application is to show that you can be a great portfolio manager, and the piece of experience that best exemplifies this is your work as a financial analyst — so emphasize it! For example, while you might ordinarily write 8 bullet points for your accounting job and only 4 bullet points for your financial analyst position, here it’d be better to include 6 bullet points for each.
3. Put what matters on top
There’s no rule that says your Education section must come before your Work Experience section. If you graduated from a prestigious university with a stellar GPA, you may want to put that first. However, if you’re applying to become a database administrator but your degree is in biology, keep that on the down low and just mention your education at the bottom of your resume.
In a nutshell, it’s crucial to understand what exactly you’re trying to accomplish with your cover letter and your resume, and to make sure you’re painting the right picture of yourself with both. If you do that, you’ll be sure to snag yourself an amazing job!
Peter Yang is a career coach, human resources expert, and professional resume writer. You can check out his company at ResumeGo, a firm that provides career counseling and resume writing services.