It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018
With the election just weeks away and polls tight, this historic election between starkly contrasting presidential candidates has grabbed the attention of a nation polarized between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The campaign is also galvanizing thousands of professionals who aspire to jobs as presidential appointees, the policy positions that will be announced in the 2016 Plum Book late this year.
Those who want a real shot at one of these Plum Books jobs need to get their federal resumes and cover letters in top shape and submit them to the Presidential Appointments web site as soon as possible. Aspirants who wait for the results of the election before applying are more likely to be disappointed.
Applicants must target the resume and cover letter specifically to one of the candidates and to a specific mission, agency, program, legislation or actual position that the candidate holds. For those who aspire to serve the 45th president, here are seven steps to optimize the chances of landing one of these plum jobs.
Target Jobs from the 2012 Plum Book
Study United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions, commonly called the Plum Book, and target relevant cabinet departments, agencies or other federal government units as well as functional roles and subject-matter areas. Do networking and research to determine whether those positions are likely to reappear in the Plum Book’s 2016 edition, which should appear before year’s end. Just as in the private sector, government reorganizations can move positions or eliminate them. Expect about 4,000 political appointees in the next presidential administration, Eagles says.
Choose a Presidential Candidate and Work Hard for His or Her Campaign
Aspiring appointees should pick one candidate and dedicate 100 percent of their efforts to that campaign. “Research the campaign and reach out – there’s no excuse for not doing this,” says David Eagles, director of presidential transition at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service in Washington, in an exclusive interview with The Resume Place.
Going all out for one candidate is a virtual requirement to establish loyalty, says Eagles, who has been appointed to serve under both Republican and Democratic presidents, an unusual distinction. In the process, would-be appointees can keep an eye out for a sponsor to support their eventual applications for jobs in the next White House administration.
Update Online Profile to Reflect Candidate Loyalty
It’s important to update one’s online presence with both professional accomplishments and political activities, from working the phones at a campaign office to volunteering for a higher level role in the candidate’s organization.
Prepare a Resume and Cover Letter Customized for a Presidential Appointment
Successful candidates for presidential appointments will prepare key application materials well in advance of the general election. “Draft a two- or three-page resume that speaks to your expertise, leadership, loyalty to your candidate and political savvy,” says Kathryn Troutman, president of The Resume Place, which has been providing resume and cover-letter preparation services to aspiring presidential appointees for more than 40 years. “Your cover letter should address the presidential recruitment committee and build a bridge between your professional experience and the specific appointment you seek.”
Show Loyalty by Working for the Candidate Day and Night
Burn the midnight oil campaigning for the candidate every day until election day, Nov. 8. Learn about the structure of the candidate’s organization and connect with players relevant to the presidential appointment process.
Fine-Tune the Presidential Appointment Resume and Cover Letter
As soon as the 2016 Plum Book is published, revise the draft resume and cover letter to precisely target the desired position. “Based on our conversations with Office of Personnel Management, there’s a chance the new edition may come out before the election, maybe in October,” says Eagles.
“You’ll probably submit the job application through your congressman or senator,” says Troutman, co-author with Diane Hudson Burns of The New SES Application:Writing the Traditional ECQs and the New Five-Page Senior Executive Service Federal Resume.
If the Chosen Candidate Becomes President-Elect, Blitz for the Target Position
Campaign hard for the presidential appointment beginning the day after the election. Continue to volunteer, now for the presidential transition effort. “Set aside time to the meet the requirements of the arduous screening process, and follow all application instructions to the letter,” Troutman says.