April 26, 2008

The Top 5 ... Tips for making your cover letter stand out!

Now that the summer job searching season is in full force, it's time to remember some of the basics when it comes to crafting your resume and cover letters.

Recently, I was in the mall visiting with an old friend when two students came into the store my friend works at. They asked if they could drop off their resume and my friend gladly accepted it. After they left the store, my friend immediately put the resumes into the 'NO' section of the folder.

I asked him why, and he said that one didn't have a cover letter, and the second applicant's cover letter was sub-standard. While he didn't mention specifics, from the quick glance that I saw, the second cover letter was really lacking in every single department - no personalization, only one paragraph, and no signature.

So here are my top 5 tips for creating a cover letter that will have your application standing out:

1.) Personalize the cover letter. Make sure you properly address the letter to the person who will be doing the hiring. This could be in the form of a hiring manager, store manager, or senior staff that you would report to. Do not automatically assume that resumes are sent to the Human Resources (HR) department, because in some instances they are not. For example, in many small companies, HR only gets involved once the company is making an employment offer.

If you are unsure who the applications are going to, just phone (or drop by) and ask. If you still cannot find out a name, then you can personalize the cover letter for the 'Hiring Manager', 'Store Manager', 'Manager', or 'Human Resources' (only if it is an office job, as stores do not have designated HR people).

2.) State what job you are applying for and where you heard about it in the first paragraph. How many times have you walked by a store sign that says the store is now hiring assistant managers, key-holders, and sales associates? Or what about those online job ads that list both inbound customer service and outbound customer service positions?

Since companies sometimes offer more than one job opening, you need to specify what job it is you are applying for. At the same time, you need to let the employer know how you found out about the job. I remember when I was being interviewed by one company and they asked where I found out about the job opening because they wanted to see which online job website was more popular.

And what about instances where you found out about a job from someone in your network? Be sure to mention that too, provided that you have the permission of that person.

3.) Use the middle body paragraph to highlight your skills and/or work experience. This is obvious, as the middle paragraph is your chance to shine. If the job posting used industry-specific lingo or general attributes of successful candidates, this is the paragraph to use them in.

The second paragraph is also good if you find that you don't have enough space for your resume. Even though some employment and career counsellors would disagree, I believe that students and youth should aim for a one-page resume - anything more, and the hiring manager might not read it. If you find that you have more information than space on your resume, use the middle paragraph to offer additional, but still relevant details. For example, you could list that you won the "Employee of the Month" award for 8 months in your cover letter if you find that you have more important information that you'd like to mention in your resume (e.g. additional job duties or relevant skills).

4.) Ensure that your full contact information (address, phone number, and e-mail address) are located either at the top of your cover letter and/or in the final paragraph. You'd be surprised how often this information is missing. Do not assume that the person reading your application will flip the page and read your resume to find the information.

I advise clients to put their name and address at the top of the letter (as it would be for a professional letter). This could either be in typical letter form, or you can create your own custom letterhead with all of your contact information. Either way, I recommend that you mention your phone number and e-mail address in the last paragraph, as it provides a nice way to close the letter.

5.) Sign the cover letter. I know this seems trivial, but it's a critical final touch that really makes the entire letter look more professional. Only sign in blue or black ink - I prefer black because it matches the ink of the letter.

Here's why I tell my friends that signing a letter is so important. First of all, when I was working in retail, I remember my manager once telling me that people who did not sign their letters were automatically placed in the 'NO' pile. He said that the absence of a signature made it seem like the applicant printed off a stack of cover letters and was flyering the mall with their resume - in other words, it was a rushed job and the applicant didn't have any real employer preference. Secondly, I've also heard that more and more companies are having handwriting analysts examine the handwriting of employees. Just take a look at this
website.

Remember, an eye-catching cover letter compliments a resume by offering a quick way for employers to find out some basic information about you. While you might think you don't need a cover letter, I always send one, even if it's a quick letter that lets the employer know that my resume is attached. You can easily distinguish yourself from the pack with a well-written and informative cover letter.

After all, separating yourself from the pack is what will land you that interview and hopefully, the summer job you've always wanted.

Good luck!

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