Uncovered: Make your intro letter get the job!

Most cover letters are to people you don't know, so stop referring to them as cover letters; they are sales letters. You’re trying to sell yourself to a stranger.

Think about this letter in terms of the unsolicited direct mail offers you get. Many of those have been created by the finest writers in the business.

Use these eight direct-mail rules to guide your cover-letter writing:

1. Open with a bang. I used to write, "I’m writing to apply for the position you advertised blah blah blah." But duh, of course you’re writing to get a job. Why else does anyone write a cover letter? Use the first line to sell yourself and make yourself stand out. For example, "I think your company can use my exceptional sales skills and 10 years of experience in your industry."

2. Be clear about your purpose. Your cover letter is the introduction to your résumé. If your cover letter is longer than a page, it’s likely longer than your résumé, and whoever heard of an introduction that’s longer than the main event? Also, write a separate letter for each job, because each sentence of your cover letter should refer specifically to the job at hand.

3. Use your time wisely. A hiring manager spends 10 seconds on a résumé before deciding whether to reject it. This includes your cover letter, so don't waste your 10 seconds. The rule of a résumé is that every single line sells you, and so does the cover letter. In fact, it's shorter, so it should sell with more punch. Every sentence of the cover letter should give a specific reason for hiring you; you never know which sentence will catch the reader's eye during your precious 10 seconds.

4. Format strategically. Bullets work in a cover letter to highlight your relevant achievements immediately. Odd numbers of bullets are easier to read than even numbers, so use either three or five. Seven is too many– the list will look so long that people will skip it.

5. Tell the reader the next step. A cover letter introduces a résumé, and the point of the résumé is to get an interview. So in the cover letter say flat out that you want a phone call or an email, because that's how someone sets up an interview. This call to action makes a nice last paragraph.

6. Say it, and then say it again. Put your email address and phone number at the top of the letter– and at the bottom. The hiring manager should not have to hunt for your contact info; each second of that hunt is a second the person could change her mind about calling.

7. Come back to it. If you copy and paste and have the wrong company name in your opening sentence, Spellcheck won't catch it, and probably neither will you because it's hard to catch errors when you've been rewriting the same letter for an hour. So come back in two hours, proofread, and then send. You'll be amazed at the errors you catch.

8. Follow up. I know it’s a discouraging call to make because the odds are that you won't get through to a real person. And if you do get through, he will give you no information. But there’s a very slim chance that you will get someone on the phone who will take a good look at your résumé just because you called, and that will get you the interview. That's why you need to make the call– because it just might work. Besides, picking up the phone is a lot easier than finding another job opening and writing another cover letter.
Penelope Trunk has worked for many businesses and even started a few, and now she's too busy to write her column. This good advice is reprinted from an earlier edition of the Hook.

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