3 Elements of a Killer Cover Letter

Ahh, the cover letter. The bane of just about every job seeker's existence.

If you're like most people, you'd rather spend 17 hours at a car repair shop or waiting for the cable guy than have to spend 17 minutes writing a cover letter.

But a well-written cover letter -- directed to the right person -- can give you a decided advantage in the competition. So you really ought to figure this sucker out.

How do you make sure your next cover letter grabs the reviewer by the short hairs, captivates her and convinces her to call you in for an interview, stat?

My simple answer to the question is this:

You nail the lead.

Here is your prime opportunity to grab them at hello and then draw them into your professional story. Don't squander it.

And then, once you captivate the attention of your prospective employer, you want to make sure you’re coming across as a YES, a YES and a YES to these three critical questions:

  1. Can this person do the job?
  2. Do we like this person?
  3. Do we think this person is going to fit in around here? Is he or she “one of us”?

If you can (at the very least) strongly hint that you’re a triple yes on these questions, chances are you land an interview. So let’s land you the interview.

Here are the three primary elements of a killer cover letter:

#1: A Strong Lead

Again, you’ve got to get this part right.

Consider this the heart of your cover letter. It’s where you have the best opportunity to evoke an emotional response in the reviewer. It’s also chance to introduce yourself as a dead-on match.

This is where you say, “Here’s who I am and why I want to work for you guys.”

"I know who you are, I love what you’re doing, and I have specific reasons why I’m applying for this job."

And in any instance you can drum one up, use a personal anecdote . This will not only affirm your specific interest and understanding of the organization, it’ll also help position you as an interesting, likable human – and one with a cool story.

Example:

When I was 8, my sister dared me to take my clunky, oversized bike down the biggest hill in our neighborhood. Since she was my OLDER sister, I (of course) had to rise to this occasion. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet (made by XYZ Helmets). It came right in handy when, in my terror, I forgot to apply the brakes … and flipped right over the handlebars.

“I’ve been a loyal customer since. Today, I’m a strategic marketing leader who – in spite of it all – has become an avid competitive cyclist. It would thrill me to serve as your next Senior Marketing Manager.”

You see what we did there? Strong lead – Clear and personal explanation of why this person loves the helmet company at which she wants to work, and an intro that suggests to the reviewer right off the bat that she “is” what they’re looking for.

Sure beats, “Please accept my application to your Senior Marketing Manager role, which I saw advertised on LinkedIn on Feb. 16.” (Doesn’t it?)

#2: Direct Evidence That You’re a Fit

Next, you need to provide direct evidence that you’ve got the specific skills that this company is looking for. This section is the muscle of your cover letter, and it will likely be the longest section of the document.

Here’s your opportunity to help the reader quickly connect the dots between his “This is what we need” and your “This is what [YOUR NAME] can walk through our doors and deliver”.

I typically begin this section in a very obvious way. In fact, I usually head into it with this exact line:

What, specifically, would I bring to XYZ Company in this role?

And underneath that, develop a few key points that show instantly that you understand what this organization is looking for, and how – exactly – your background lines up the position.

How do you figure out what the organization is looking for, and what’s most important to showcase?

You study the job description.

Or maybe you talk to people who work at that company and see if they have more specific input on what that hiring manager or department really needs.

And then you take that information and assess what skills seem to be the most important. What experiences do you think that this hiring manager might value to the most?

This is the information you’ll want to cover in these key points.

You’ll want to state the skill or capability that you know they’re looking for, and then expound on it with direct evidence of something that you’ve done – or that you do – that supports it.

Example:

A strong understanding of the cycling community, and the ability to influence its members.  And then you share a brief example of something you’ve done that backs up this point.

Creating a Direct Evidence section in your cover letter gives you a very easy and straightforward way to make it clear that you “are” what they’re looking for.

#3: A Strong Close

A lot of people kind of frizzle out at the end of cover letters. It’s like they’re so spent from getting to this stage of the game that they’ve got nothing left to say. ("I can't ... go ... on...")

Or worse – they go with the obnoxious hard sell.

Some career coaches and well-meaning advice givers will insist that you go with this in-your-face close as you wrap up your cover letter. They’ll tell you to beat your chest and loudly proclaim that you’re the one, and that you’re going to call them on this date to set up a face-to-face meeting.

Stop that. It’s so obnoxious to decision makers, and it doesn’t work. In fact, it may backfire because, even if the rest of the cover letter is stellar, you may lose them with the hard sell.

Certainly, you want to be proactive and confident here, but don’t fall into pushy or cheesy territory just when you’re in the home stretch.

End strong, people. End strong.

Example:

“Katherine, I believe my energy, desire to innovate, and recent successes in building a profitable outdoor apparel brand, would  serve [company] very well. I would love to meet to discuss the value I could add as your next Senior Marketing Manager.”

It’s friendly, it’s on point and it’s free of those ridiculous cover letter clichés like, “I’m uniquely qualified” or “I’m the ideal match.”

And then you're done. Now you just need to sleuth out an appropriate person to whom you can email this (directly) -- The most impactful, results-generating cover letters are the ones going right to the hiring manager or recruiter's inbox, not through the scanning software.

Want more help?

If you're all the way to the end and still feel like you need help, we'll be glad to. Check out our Cover Letter Service, or the just launched (and FREE!) Cover Letter Crash Course. In it, we walk you through our proven process of developing a compelling cover letter. We also share cover letter samples, and answer the questions we hear most often about cover letters. Interested? C'mon over...

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons (Steven Depolo)