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Home > Blog: Cover Letters > Make the Cover Letter Your Secret Weapon

Make the Cover Letter Your Secret Weapon

Kerry Sandberg ScottToday's post is written by Kerry Sandberg Scott (pictured), author of the blog Clue Wagon and a human resources professional with 14 years' experience. Kerry began her career in recruiting before serving as the head of HR for different companies. She has also advised several companies and recruiters on finding and hiring the best candidates.

"How do I stand out among all those other candidates for the job?"

It's a question I hear a lot lately. With an average of six candidates for every job opening in the United States, it's hard to know how to get employers to notice you. Everyone is looking for that special trick or magic codeword.

The funny thing is that special trick or secret weapon is right under your nose: It's your cover letter. Here are the reasons why:

1. It shows that you put some effort into getting the job.

When I receive 500 applications from a single ad, I need some way to make that stack more manageable. One way I do that is to eliminate those who didn't bother to include a cover letter.  I've never understood why, but I always have a sizeable percentage of candidates who don't include a cover letter, even for high-level positions. This must be because there are some recruiters out there who tell people they don't read them. That may be true (sadly), but you don't have any way of knowing whether the person receiving your resume and cover letter is one of them. Even recruiters who don't read them won't penalize you for including one … but lots of hiring folks will penalize you if you don't.  So, make sure you survive that first cut.

2. It shows you're literate.

I've never, ever hired for a job where being able to form a sentence wasn't a good thing. In my last job, for example, we hired baggage handlers. You wouldn't immediately think of that as a "writing" job, but they have to leave notes, write up incident reports, document procedures, and more. Everyone in an office uses email, and we've all received emails from people whose writing skills were so poor we couldn't figure out what they were saying. You don't need to be Shakespeare, but you'll stand out if you can show me you can write clearly and concisely. That's a skill you need for every job.

3. It shows me who you are.

A lot of people have help writing their resumes. That means when I see a resume that looks great, it may or may not reflect on the candidate. Cover letters are typically written at the time of application, though, so the candidates usually write them without professional help. When you write it, I get a much better picture of who you are, without the filter of your super-polished resume.

4. It gives you a chance to explain.

Many people have special circumstances that require explanation. Maybe you've been laid off from your last three jobs, or you spent only six months in your last gig, or you live out of state but are planning to move here next month. The cover letter gives you an opportunity to address potential concerns before they torpedo your chances for an interview.

5. It allows you to express yourself.

When I applied for my last job as head of HR for a small airline, the competition was fierce, and my cover letter was one of the reasons I got an interview. In the letter, I told them why I wanted to work there. I explained how my aunt had been a flight attendant for 40+ years, and I had grown up playing flight attendant (well, okay, stewardess … it was the '70s). I always dreamed of working for an airline, so the fact that they knew this was my dream job was part of the reason I was interviewed, then hired. If you have a reason for wanting the job beyond "I need money," use your cover letter to tell them. I would rather hire someone who really wants to work for my company than someone who's just looking for another paycheck.

A good cover letter can make all the difference in helping you stand out in a sea of candidates. Don't skip — or skimp on — this very important step!

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