I look at a lot of cover letters, and find that the majority can be improved with a few key changes.
1. Write it well.
This means good grammar and sentence structure, logical flow and relevant content, as well as perfect spelling. If you are not a great writer, find a friend who can edit your letter. A well-crafted cover letter conveys that the writer is a clear thinker and smart person. Mistakes (like typos or mixed up verb tenses) give the reviewer a great reason to toss your resume into the recycling bin or shredder. Don’t do their work for them!
2. Use the cover letter to make the case for why you are the right person for the job.
In marketing terms, your resume is your “value proposition” while the job posting and description put forth the need that must be met. Your cover letter articulates how your value proposition – skills, experience, expertise – matches the stated need. To make that case, you will refer to the job description, often using language taken straight from the ad or posting. This demonstrates that you are paying attention to this employer’s specific needs, and that you understand that work is a two-way street. You want a job, they want an employee. You need a paycheck, they need results. Show that you understand that the employer has needs, too, and you will start to stand out from the competition.
3. Give enough specificity to invite more questions at an interview, and absolutely no more.
Cover letters allow you to go into a bit more detail than your resume about specific accomplishments – looking from about 8,000 feet instead of 10,000 – and definitely no lower. No one wants to read every last detail. It’s boring and off-putting. One person wrote a letter that gave lots of detail about one accomplishment – it was hovering at about 1,000 feet.
As a fundraiser, I have developed successful proposals to a number of foundations and government agencies over the past 12 years. One example of my success in this area is my spearheading the effort that resulted in a $22,000 planning grant from the such-and-such Foundation to look at increasing the number of older adults in our volunteer base. My analysis of the ensuing focus groups led to our being invited to apply for full funding. We were awarded a $150,000, three-year grant as a result. I continue to monitor the programming and reporting on that grant. In addition, at both MNO and BCD, I successfully increased foundation fundraising and income from billable contracts during my tenures.
The content definitely was relevant; it was just too much of a good thing. Here’s a small edit to show how to highlight the essential point, give an example and curtail extraneous detail.
As a fundraiser, I have led or been an integral part of efforts that yielded many millions of funding from foundations and government agencies during my career. For example, I spearheaded XYZ’s effort that raised first a planning grant and then a $150,000 multi-year grant from a major foundation. In addition, at both MNO and BCD, I successfully increased foundation fundraising and income from billable contracts.
You might get an interview because the reviewer wants to know HOW you accomplished these things. Then you can go into more detail.
4. Talk about why you want to work for the organization or company.
The cover letter is your chance to show them how you are the perfect fit, not simply in terms of your abilities and qualifications but in terms of their mission and programmatic needs. You certainly are technically qualified. Why should they choose you? What’s your motivation for seeking this position? A little flattery goes a long way, as does a thoughtful rationale for why your experience will translate into the new company’s focus.
When applying to a non-profit organization, make sure you weave any experience – professional, volunteer or personal, that ties you to the organization’s specific mission and issues.
5. Get the reader to go to your resume.
The cover letter is supposed to give employers a slightly different perspective on you. It’s the place to amplify the key messages contained in your resume and to make the case for you being the right person for the job. It should not take the place of the resume. It’s good to give the reader instructions: So don’t repeat everything that’s in your resume. Get them to go to the resume by saying things like: “My resume is enclosed.” and “As you will see from my resume, I have experience in …”