Your cover letter is a chance for you to extract information from your resume, which is somewhat generic by nature, and recast it so that it’s relevant to the specific job at hand. If you simply copy and paste information from your resume into your cover letter, you’re missing that chance. Give the hiring manager something to read that he or she can’t find in your resume. Expand on your skills and experience, and add information that explains why your experience is going to help you to succeed in this job.
Think about the hundreds of applications for this job that the hiring manager has already read. How many of the applicants do you think were dedicated, detail-oriented team players with strong communication skills? How many of them were self-motivated problem solvers? The answer: all of them, and most of them said so using those exact words. These clichés are used so much that they mean absolutely nothing now. They’ll hurt your chances of getting the job not just because they’ll make you blend in with the crowd, but because they’ll also encourage the hiring manager to read between the lines to try to figure out what you’re hiding by using such vague language.
Stick with real-world examples of your skills and experience, and resist the temptation to retreat to clichés in an attempt to tell the employer what you think he wants to hear. He doesn’t want to hear that you’re a self-motivated problem solver, and if you use those words, you’ve given him a reason to pass you by.
Don’t be generic
So far, you should see a theme in all of this advice. It’s all about being specific. You want the employer to think that you, and only you, are the right person for this job. By showing that you’ve thought carefully about why you think that’s true, you’ll encourage the reader of your cover letter to look at you more closely. He or she won’t have to try to sort through clichés and general statements about your experience in order to understand why you will fit well into this position. That’s important, because no hiring manager is going to put in that effort.
Under no circumstances should you use a single, generic cover letter for every job application. Write a new letter for each job, and make sure it’s obvious that you’ve done so.
Keep it short
The irony about cover letters is that everyone will tell you that you need to have one, but no one wants to read it. Your cover letter is a five-second pitch that says “This is why you shouldn’t throw my application in the trash.” Don’t try to make it more than that.
Stay concise and focused. Provide three or four paragraphs that lay out your relevant experience as described above, and then stop. Never write more than a page—and a half page would be even better—and be ruthless when you revise to be sure that nothing irrelevant remains.
And don’t think you can get away without revising. Re-read what you’ve written and make sure that it flows well. Eliminate what you can and tighten up your sentences. Then re-read it again and make sure that there are no typos, misspellings or grammatical errors. None. If all else is equal between your cover letter and someone else’s, you don’t want to be the one who misspelled “experience.” It is grossly unfair (unless you’re applying for a job as an editor), but in today’s job climate, a single misspelled word or misplaced comma can be all it takes to exclude you from consideration for a job.
Don’t rely on spellcheck; it can miss words that are spelled correctly but that are the wrong word for your particular sentence. If you can manage it, have someone else proofread your letter; a new pair of eyes is more likely to see an error that is invisible to you. This thing has to be 100% error-free before you send it out.
In your closing, wrap things up neatly and concisely. Make a short restatement of your interest, and make it clear that you’re requesting an interview—of course that’s obvious, but saying so is a quick and easy way to indicate that you’re serious about this job. Explain the best way to contact you, and if you plan to follow up with a phone call, explain your intentions here. And, finally, politely thank the reader for her consideration and her time. After all, she’s made it all the way through your letter, and that’s something that you should be immensely grateful for.