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How to Write a Great Cover Letter

Q. "Give me a choice between writing a cover letter and swimming with sharks, and I'll head for the beach! Can you offer an easy-to-follow approach for writing cover letters that captures a recruiter's attention and increases my chances of landing an interview?"

A. You aren't alone in your distaste for writing cover letters. Most job seekers are intimidated by the task. It's very common to doubt one's ability to compose a letter guaranteed to pique the interest of a hard-nosed recruiter.

Fortunately, by using the neat little formula I'm about to divulge, you will create cover letters that produce a much better than average response. While there are just a few ingredients, together they create a powerful synergy.

The most important thing to remember is this: you must always tailor your letter to the job you're pursuing. A one-size-fits-all approach may save you time, but it will alienate your reader. If you want to engage an employer's attention, compose your letter with his interests in mind.

Begin by addressing your cover letter to a real person, if possible. If the ad lists a company, but not the individual responsible for hiring, call the firm's receptionist to find out who is collecting resumes for the position. Saying, "Dear Mr. Janson," is a lot better than "To Whom It May Concern."

Use your first paragraph to establish a bond between you and the reader. Mention the person who referred you. Do a little research on the company and list several reasons why you are interested in working there. Be complimentary. Show you've done your homework. Don't start your letter with, "I saw your ad in the Dallas Morning News." Everyone does that. A targeted first paragraph can set you apart from the crowd more than any other component of your letter.

Now that you have your reader's fond attention, tell him about yourself. Write a few sentences that briefly highlight your accomplishments, skills, and personality traits most relevant to his needs. You can even use two columns headed by "You Need" and "I Have," if you want to be very to the point.

In your final paragraph, tell the recruiter you will call or email him in a few days to confirm receipt of your resume and schedule an interview. Then be true to your word. Employers like candidates with initiative and perseverance. Unless the ad says "NO calls," don't hesitate to make the first contact. You'll be one of a very few enterprising candidates who do.

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