Congratulations! Your resume is finally done and ready to be submitted! However, before you do, there’s one more item to include: The cover letter. This is a vital element that may put you over the top to land an interview. Just like a “thank you” note after an interview (which we'll get to in Part V), this is your chance to be a little more personable with the hiring manager and/or recruiter and show that you’re willing to go above and beyond for the position you’re applying to.
Now, if you’ve been doing your research (which I absolutely encourage you do), you may have seen a lot of traffic and talk about cover letters being obsolete. I 100% disagree. However, I do 100% agree that they are very often poorly done or flat out used incorrectly. So, I just want to preface this article with this: Cover letters are not an extension or reiteration of your resume.
A good friend, and fellow mentor of mine, Dr. Bob Habib, so expertly explained it this way: Resumes are the "How" and the cover letter is the "Why". Your resume should explain how you're the best person for the job – actions, results, tangible outcomes, meat – whereas the cover letter should go over why you’re the best fit – ethics, values, vision, and how yours line up with theirs.
If your cover letter lacks that distinction and difference from your resume, then yes, I agree with all the critics that it's a waste of time and effort and can even hurt your chances. But if you do a cover letter the right way, I promise it will enhance your applications. Nearly every hiring manager and recruiter that I have talked to in recent years that have held the sentiment that cover letters are an obsolete relic have quickly flipped on their stance once I’ve pitched them the How vs. Why argument.
So let me say it again:
If your cover letter is done properly, then it absolutely adds value to your application, and I 100% advocate for them!
Now let’s get to some of the actual what do you put in a cover letter. First off, just like your resume, you want to personalize every cover letter that you send out. I’m not saying you must rewrite it every time. Even I have a template that I use. However, you don’t want to just change the date and name of the employer and send it off. Go through it and make sure it’s relevant to the job you’re applying to. Personalize it to the company. Does the company have a motto or ethos? Then tie them to your personal values in the cover letter! Ultimately, as I’ve already mentioned in the How vs. Why argument, you’re wanting to bridge that gap of how your values, vision, ethos, etc. match up with theirs. Again, why are you the best person for the job?!
So first off, you want to start with a professional header. Like your resume, this should include your name, location (not street address), and contact info. This will not go through an 8-second review, so don’t worry as much about formatting. This will get read later on after your resume’s already gone through the 8-second review. Then you want to make an introduction. Put the date, location / mailing address, and if you know the hiring manager’s name, use it in the opening. If you don’t have a name, “To whom it may concern” is a viable alternative.
If you don’t know what to actually say in the body of your letter, a quick Google search will pull up a plethora of good advice and even templates out there. What I will say about the body is this: Sound confident. Don’t sound cocky or arrogant but speak like you are the best person for the job, and that you’re confident that you have what it takes to excel.
Lastly, sign it! Don’t just leave a signature block at the bottom with no signature. Print it out, sign it, and scan it back in. Or do what I did and create a digital copy of my handwritten signature so all I have to do is paste it into my cover letter each time in Word, and then convert it to PDF (never submit a resume or cover letter in Word format unless you are explicitly direct to do so). Whatever you do though, do not leave the signature area blank, because again, we’re showing that we’re willing to not shortcut anything for this position. If you are willing to shortcut something, then I would question if you should even be spending the time to apply in the first place.
One last thing about your cover letter: Include it in your application! Now, you might be thinking that sounds ridiculous. However, if you haven’t applied to a lot of jobs online, you may not have experienced a job application where they don’t have a spot to submit or upload a cover letter. Well, guess what I’m going to tell you to do? Include it anyway! Does the job application site have a category that you’re not using (like “Writing Sample” that is often listed in USA Jobs for federal openings)? Submit it there! Does the job site have only just enough upload sections for each required submission (i.e. resume, transcripts, certification), so there are no upload spots left? Then include it as a third page to your resume! Again, you should never be submitting a word copy of your resume anyway, so print out your resume along with the cover letter, sign the cover letter, and then rescan all three pages as a PDF!
The cover letter is a simple way to put a little bit of extra “oomph” to your application and doesn't take much time at all (at least, compared to your resume tailoring). And with that folks, we have made it to the end of Part IV! What a ride it has been! I knew that this was going to be a beast of a topic, and after six installments of Part IV, we’re done with resumes, cover letters, and job applications! Of course, if it can take 4-8 hours to tailor a resume, then it only stands to reason that it would take six weeks to cover the topic. But I am telling you that when folks (myself included) started to heed this advice, we noticed a distinct change in the number of applications that were getting referred on for consideration in interviews! So, I thank you for hanging in there with me to the end, and hopefully, this too will help you in your employment journey!
Hopefully, you’ve found some use in Part IV of our Employment chat. If you did, please share it with your fellow service members so that they can also hopefully glean some insight into the various aspects of transition. And of course, join me soon for Part V of the Employment chat as we talk about what happens after your resume gets you past the first hurdle and onto the next step: Job interviews and benefit negotiations!
Until next time, be safe, stay healthy, and remember that you’re not in this alone!
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