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The DOs and DON’Ts of Cover Letters

Most organizations look at hundreds of applicants for any position posted. It is integral to write a cover letter that not only showcases your strengths and skills, but demonstrates your knowledge of the organization that you are applying to, connects your skills to the skills needed in the position, and has an anecdote that is memorable. It is essential to target every cover letter to the position and organization that you are applying to.

Tip: If your cover letter can be used to apply to multiple positions, you won’t be getting a phone call.

With just one page to fit all of that into, it sounds impossible. Writing cover letters is a time consuming practice,  but the more you do it, the better you will be!

A good cover letter will:

1) Look professional: Make sure all of your personal information is laid out at the top of the page, and the layout matches your resume. Use a professional font. Make sure your margins are a normal size (margins that are way too big or too small make your cover letter look unprofessional at first glance).

2) Address the right person: If a name is given to apply to, absolutely, 100% address the letter to that person. If the position has not listed a name, do some research. Go on their website or Linked In to see if you can find the name of the hiring manager. Addressing the correct person demonstrates that you are professional and that you pay attention to detail. If you absolutely cannot find it, whatever you do, do NOT open the letter with Dear Sir. Remember, it is very possible that the person doing the hiring can also be a woman. People do not appreciate the assumption that a manager would be a man.

3) Start off your cover letter with a story that shows who you are: Of course, you may want to start with your education or work experience. But try to express yourself in the first few sentences, you want to grab their attention so they will keep reading the letter. Reading letter after letter about people’s skills and abilities gets boring, you want to be the one that sticks out.

An anecdote about why you would love to work at that organization would be great to use. Here are a few examples:

“In my current position I had the opportunity to mentor students who were applying to jobs, and I realized that I really loved this aspect of the position. I enjoyed working directly with students to determine their skills and interests and to help them leverage those skills to start their career. When I saw the Human Resources position posted, I felt that this position would be a great opportunity to continue with my passion for working with people while using the skills that I have developed in my current role”.

“As a person who has spent some time volunteering with non-profit organizations that support aboriginal people, I have seen first-hand how the lack of resources for aboriginal people in our country affects their quality of life. I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as a country to provide resources such as health care, community resources, and support to aboriginal people so that they have the opportunities that others have. I believe these values are in line with those of your organization, and I would love the opportunity to help provide this support in the fundraising role that has been posted”.

4) Showcase your skills in a memorable way: Don’t just list your skills. Anyone can list skills. I have seen countless people claim that they are detail-oriented, but their resume is littered with spelling mistakes and doesn’t even address the person listed in the job posting. Just saying you have skills doesn’t mean anything to a potential employer.

What you need to do is give examples of skills that you have and then tell them how you got those skills. Not where, HOW. Give a story of something you did to develop those skills, talk about a report you had to write, or a project you worked on. Make it memorable. Here are a few examples:

“I developed strong cross-cultural communication skills while working at the Banquet Centre. While I was a server at the Banquet Centre, we served wedding receptions for people from a variety of backgrounds. During these events I had to adjust to the cultural norms and traditions associated with wedding receptions. I also had to adjust to the way people interacted with me and understand that not every culture would address me the same way. This experience has given me the ability to react quickly to different cross-cultural situations so as to provide the best customer service possible”.

“I developed international business skills while writing solutions to business cases in my courses at University X. One such business case that we studied was for Wal-Mart when they entered the market in China. When Wal-Mart entered the Chinese market, they were very unsuccessful due to a variety of cultural differences that they had not considered. Chinese customers rarely have vehicles, therefore they do not buy in bulk to get the savings that Wal-Mart provides. Shoplifting was also a serious problem at the locations in China. One of the solutions that I had developed for this case was to focus heavily on e-commerce, which would be delivered to the doors of customers. This was a solution that no one else in the class had thought of, and turned out to be one of the directions that Wal-Mart had taken to find success in China”.

5) Do your research: Do your research on the company! Show that you love the company. Show that you are not just looking for a job, you are looking for a job with THEM. That is so important, as any organization wants someone who will be passionate about their mission and vision.

Simply copying and pasting the mission or vision of the organization into your cover letter will not cut it, either. They know what their mission and vision is, don’t spit it back out at them. Read through the company website as thoroughly as possible, but don’t stop there. Look for news articles on that company to make sure you understand what is happening for them right now. Look at their Linked In page, and research what is happening in their industry. Here are some examples:

“I read recently that CompanyX has received funding to expand and build a new location. I would love to work for CompanyX as I think this is a very exciting time to be involved with the growing organization that supports people in the arts. I strongly believe that people in the arts need space and support to grow their careers, and being a part of that growing initiative is an amazing opportunity”.

“I understand that not-for-profit organizations face a different set of challenges that private organizations do not. Your budget demonstrates that government funding has been cut for your organization recently, and that you rely more heavily on fundraising to provide the support needed. I believe that all homeless people deserve housing as well as community support, therefore I would love to be a part of your fundraising department to ensure that as many homeless people in our city can get that support as possible”.

6) Link your skills to what the organization needs: So now you’ve shown yourself, you’ve shown that you know the company, link those two things to really hit home. Sure you have skills, and you like the organization, but why should they choose you over someone else? Plenty of people have skills needed for the position you are applying for. Why are you their choice?

“The communication skills that I have developed over my work experience would be an asset in this position while interacting with potential donors. With my passion for this initiative, I could clearly communicate it’s importance to the community so potential donors have a good understanding of what they are supporting and how it will have a positive influence. This skill paired with the financial skills that I developed in my education would create a smooth process for acquiring new donors and processing the transactions”.

7) Proofread, proofread, proofread! Don’t do what Tim Smith did. I have seen this so many times, people use cover letters that they used for other positions and forget to take the name of the other employer out. Nothing shows that you could care less about the position than that. Also, it shows that you do not pay attention to detail. Those are the biggest things that send your cover letter to the garbage, when employers are looking at hundreds of applications, small things like that just give them a quick and easy reason to cut the pile down.

The same goes for spelling mistakes. Read it over multiple times, check the spelling and grammar, do not rely on Microsoft Word to pick up all of your mistakes, and get another set of eyes to read it over for you. Read your letter out loud a few times to make sure that it sounds the way you want it to. Rework your bulky sentences. If you have time, sleep on it for a night and come back and look at it with fresh eyes in the morning. This attention to detail will keep you in the maybe pile, and will ensure your cover letter is read from beginning to end.

…. I know. It’s a lot of work. Which can be frustrating when you apply for job after job and never seem to hear back from anyone. However, carefully crafting your cover letter will make you stick out from the rest of the applicants and will give you a fighting chance. Use this method, and you will be writing master cover letters faster and faster each time you do it. Eventually you will get that call! And when you do, I will have tips and tricks to help you with your interview!