How to write a winning cover letter

It's still an industry standard - and it's not hard to do

The cover letter is one of the most important ways to promote your personal brand, says Taylor Witiw. But it’s not actually all about you.

As part of his efforts to help students with “life after NAIT,” the Student Service Centre academic adviser runs workshops on how to craft a great cover letter. Even in the age of tweets, dwindling attention spans and severe time shortages, the document still captures attention and sets candidates apart, says Witiw.

“You can take the opportunity with the cover letter to write a story about yourself,” he adds.

More importantly, though, you can show how your story aligns with a potential employer's story. Here, Witiw explains how and why going beyond the resumé is worth the effort.

Write a great cover letter to get your foot in the door with a potential employerThe beginning

Be direct, he says. In your first sentence, “tell them what you’re applying to.”

Then move on to why you're interested in the company with a brief discussion of the corporate values behind the position. Tie those values to yours. Explain which aspects of a company’s culture impress you and why. Make it personal.

“You’re trying to draw a connection between you and the employer,” says Witiw.

Find things that few other candidates might know about. Dig into websites, press releases, or reference what you’ve heard current employees say, naming names when possible.

“That’s a really good way to stand apart [from the competition],” he says, and show how you fit with the company.

The middle

Follow your opening paragraph by describing – in greater detail than in your resumé – 2 or 3 skills that reinforce that fit. Devote a paragraph to each. “Giving specific examples makes your story more believable,” says Witiw. For example, if communication is among your strengths, zero in on public speaking expertise and training, and the number and type of presentations you’ve delivered.

Link your skills to specific needs the company requires. “Show not only that you have the skills they’re looking for but that you understand why they’re looking for them. Again, that shows that connection point.”

Alternatively, you can include an experience rather than a skill. "For example, you could spend a paragraph describing what your education enables you to bring to the table," says Witiw.

This section can also be used to prove yourself even if you don’t have the exact qualifications outlined in a posting. “The cover letter is a great way to address gaps,” he says. For instance, if you don’t have that bachelor in management, highlight the accounting diploma, supervisory experience and project management certificate that you do have. “Make the case.”

A cover letter is a great way to tell a potential employer your story and get hiredThe end

After a summarizing sentence reminding the hiring manager why you’re the best candidate, wrap up the letter with confidence – but not arrogance.

“Walk the line,” says Witiw. Don’t beg for a chance and don’t assume you’re a lock. “Something like ‘I look forward to hearing from you’ is just enough assertiveness.”

Before you send

Check it over like you’re going to be graded – because, essentially, you are.

“It’s a professional document. Don’t hand in something you wouldn’t hand in to a professor as a homework assignment.” Also, be concise – don’t exceed a page, and make sure there’s plenty of white space.

Save it as a PDF so it can’t be altered. Witiw adds his signature by signing a blank piece of paper, scanning it, and pasting it into the letter.

Finally, never doubt the power of the cover letter – whether or not it’s requested. “Even if an employer said just bring a resumé, I would bring a cover letter,” says Witiw. "Go the distance. If somebody doesn’t want to ready it, they’ll throw it out. If they want to read it and you don’t have it, you look bad. So I would hand it in.”

Greetings and salutations

The first thing on your cover letter should be your contact information. Use it as a header in a font that matches the same header on your resumé, tying the 2 documents together.

Follow with the date then the company’s address, suggests Witiw. As a greeting, “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Hiring Committee” will do, he says, but go one better if possible. “If you can call in and ask what the hiring manager’s name is, do it – that’s another way you’re going to stand out.”

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