7 tips for writing an effective cover letter

The hardest part of a job search? Writing the dreaded cover letter. Here, career experts break down how to write your best one yet.

How to write a great cover letter

How to write a great cover letter

Ask any job seeker what the hardest part of his or her job search is and chances are they'll say, 'Writing that damned cover letter!' These short, conversational documents -- designed as a more personal introduction and customized to showcase your skills, talent and achievements -- are often the bane of job seekers existence. However, they don't have to be. Here, our experts offer tips and tricks to make sure your cover letter is as close to perfect as it can be.

Format your cover letter

Formatting

First, go back to basics. Make sure your cover letter -- and your resume, for that matter -- uses a standard, easy-to-read font and is formatted simply, yet powerfully, says James Stanger, senior director, product development, CompTIA. "Don't be cute with formatting. Use a font like an Arial, which is pretty standard and easy to read; not a swirly, cursive font that's going to annoy anyone who's reading," he says.

Beware the length

Length

Length is the first area of a cover letter that tends to trip up job seekers. Keep your cover letter as short as possible, and try not to exceed one page. "Using a cover letter template can help with this, and it's a great way to include your contact information at the top in a header," Stanger says.

Jenny Foss, a career strategist and writer of the popular blog JobJenny.com writes that failing to stick to a one-page format can send the wrong signals to recruiters and hiring managers.

"Hiring managers, recruiters, and HR people are all moving quickly. They need to find the 'meat' as efficiently as possible. If your cover letter is more than one page long, you're basically saying, 'I really don't care about your time.' You're also saying, 'I have no ability to get to the point.' Neither of these are good," Foss says in her blog.

Use language from the job description

Use language from the job description

Always use language from the job description, says Gelbard. "When a company posts a job description, they're saying, 'Here's what we need,' so you want to use that same language to be relevant when you're explaining why you're an ideal candidate for the position," says Gelbard.

Using the same language and keywords from the job description doesn't just help humans reading your resume, it also helps if your application is initially processed by an applicant tracking system (ATS) or a resume parser, says Stanger.

Include the job title

Include the job title

You always should mention the specific job title for which you're applying, as the person to whom you are reaching out could be conducting several concurrent searches. Also, be sure to include where you saw the job opening; for example, whether it was on LinkedIn or the company website or a job board.

Sell yourself

Sell yourself

There's a fine line to walk when writing a cover letter. You have to show confidence in yourself and that you understand that job description and how your skills and experience are relevant to the position, but going too far or over the top is a major turn-off. "You absolutely don't want to be smarmy or flippant. But, on the other hand, if you're bland, boring and standard, you won't get a response," Stanger says.

"It's OK to show a little personality in your cover letter, but you want to strike the right balance between being overly formal and too informal. It's best to err on the more formal side, but you don't need to sound boring or robotic. Let your passion and enthusiasm come through, as long as it doesn't sound fluffy or hokey," says Gelbard.

Content

Content

What should be included in the body of a cover letter? This is where you can expound on areas of your resume that you're particularly proud of, or that you feel are especially relevant to the job you want, according to Stanger.

"You can choose an accomplishment, a skill or a project that you believe will catch the recruiter's eye professionally. But make sure you're not just repeating your resume. This is the place to mention if you have a particular interest or area of expertise that will be a good fit," Stanger says.

Include why you would be an asset to the company, the unique things you have to offer and how they would benefit from having you on their team. You should also highlight relevant experience and expertise and important information that would be of interest to hiring managers -- like if you worked for their largest competitor for 10 years -- as these are things that entice a hiring manager to contact you for an interview, says Alyssa Gelbard, founder and president of Resume Strategists.

This is also an appropriate place to mention if you're sending your resume and application at the request of someone at the company. "You should lead with this information; this gets noticed quickly by whoever's reading your letter, and will help you stand out," Gelbard says.

Finally, while you can be less formal than in your resume and allow some of your personality and even sense of humor shine through, Stanger says under no circumstances should you adopt a 'hipper-than-thou' attitude or be a smart aleck - that's a sure way to get your resume rejected.

Do sweat the small stuff

Do sweat the small stuff

Make sure you have the correct month and date at the top of your cover letter, the correct company name, job title and name of the contact to whom you're sending the application. "People often forget to change these when repurposing content from previously written cover letters. While it's fine to repurpose content from a previously written cover letter, double-check to make sure your information is correct," says Gelbard.

You also shouldn't assume a female contact is married; always use Ms. Instead of Mrs. When addressing your letter. And if you're unsure about a contact's gender, do some research online and via social media to make sure you're using the correct pronouns. "Today, there are many gender-neutral names, like Jordan, Ashley or Morgan. If you assume, you risk offending a potential employer or hiring manager, and you reduce your chances of getting an interview," Gelbard says.

Finally, proofread, spell check and re-read your cover letter and resume to find errors. If you can, ask a friend or trusted colleague to go over the documents with fresh eyes -- they might find typos or errors you've missed.

Your cover letter's often the very first impression a hiring manager, recruiter or HR professional has of you -- make sure it's the best it can possibly be.