Pro tips to help you strike the right tone in your cover letter
HR experts weigh in on this crucial job application requirement
These days, the majority of job openings are advertised online and most applications are submitted via email and through websites that use increasingly sophisticated automated applicant tracking systems. But it can take more than a great resume and relevant work experience to get you in the door — a well-written cover letter can mean the difference between getting called for an interview and being rejected from a dream job.
To help you craft the perfect cover letter for your next employment application, we asked experts Jean-Pierre Fernandes, a Campus Engagement Specialist at Ryerson University's Career & Co-op Centre, and Claudia Gale, an HR Business Partner at a large bank in Canada, for their pro tips on finding the right tone to use, and content to include in your opening letter.
Here's what they recommended.
Discuss your fit for the role
While your resume showcases your overall work experience, your cover letter can more precisely address your enthusiasm and fit for the particular opportunity. For example, if you're applying for a job that's a lateral move from your current role, the cover letter can help explain to the hiring manager the career shift that you're hoping to make. "Lateral moves are so common; it's a great way to gain more experience and become more well-rounded," says Gale. "Be specific about what you are looking for and why, and share as much as you are comfortable in your cover letter."
Don't be afraid to sell yourself
"Cover letters should bring your resume to life, and should tell a story. It should tell the hiring manager who you are, why you are interested in the role, and why they should hire you," says Gale, who reviewed countless job applications during her time working in the areas of executive search and legal recruitment. In other words, while you don't want to be boastful, it's also not the time to be modest about your past accomplishments and fit for the job.
Customize each letter
To stand out against the competition, especially for an entry-level position or one where many candidates may have similar qualifications, Fernandes recommends that you always customize each letter and application to the job you're applying for. "I am constantly hearing from employers that they are getting generic resumes and cover letters, or that the person has submitted a cover letter with another organization's name on it," says Fernandes. "Make sure your cover letter is customized for the role you are applying to."
To impress the hiring manager, Gale recommends researching the company and including something you've learned in your cover letter. "For instance, if the company has won some awards recently, or has kicked off an initiative that you are excited about, mention it as a reason you'd be enthused about working with them," says Gale.
Consider tone and language — including keywords
Gale advises against a cover letter that is too formal. "Your resume should be technical and specific, while avoiding jargon. Your cover letter can be a little more relaxed and informal, and should have more personality," she says. "Make sure to include keywords in both, as long as they are accurate and genuine."
Speaking of keywords, they also help your letter surface when it comes to the company's ATS software, and as well, they show you know and understand the company's key objectives for the role. "I would ensure that the language [in your cover letter] reflects the tone of the company, the language in the job description — use the language they use to describe your work and skills," says Fernandes. "This is where customization comes in and how you can show that you are a good fit for the role and the company." He notes that it can be helpful to look at how the company talks about themselves online, and noting the way that they describe the work that they do.
Inform your application
Instead of seeing your application as the very first step in the job search process, you can try to get more information ahead of time to better your chances by honing in on what the employer is looking for. "Don't be afraid to reach out to the hiring manager before you submit your application," advises Fernandes. "Do some research, get on LinkedIn and find out who is hiring for the role or if you can connect with someone who's previously been in the role or is currently in a similar role at the organization and ask for their time. See if you can set up an interview and get feedback about the role and what they're looking for." Use this information to really inform your cover letter and resume.
Finally, don't forget to include all essential information
Here's the information to always include in your cover letter, according to Fernandes: Your contact info, the role and company you're applying for, the hiring manager's name (if you know it or if it's indicated on the posting), and the submission date. "The heading on your cover letter — your name address and contact info — should always match what is on your resume," says Fernandes. "When put together, it should look like one document."
Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.