Cover letters serve a unique purpose

Cover letters serve a unique purpose

What if there was a way to capture and hold a hiring manager’s attention with just 300 words?

It’s called a cover letter.

I hear the groans now, and that’s expected. Few things these days attract strong opinions among jobseekers with the intensity of the cover letter. In an age of online applications, they’re widely viewed as relics of the typewriter and stamped envelope era. An increasing number of employers are dropping them entirely or making them optional.

And that makes sense, to a point. Why waste time telling people about your interest in the job when you’re showing your interest by applying? Why should you bother highlighting your experience when your resume already does that job?

Those are valid questions. But that’s not what a good cover letter should do.

Think of the marketing tools you have on hand to sell your career. There’s your resume, outlining your experience. A LinkedIn profile is an optional resume-like tool to help people connect with you. In some industries you need a portfolio or work samples to highlight what you can do.

A cover letter has an entirely different job — telling stories and giving examples that draw a direct line between you and the job opening at hand. If it’s a copy-and-paste rewrite of your resume, then you’re doing it wrong.

They are extremely valuable tools for career-changers, people returning to the workforce or jobseekers with resume gaps because you can explain those circumstances while highlighting what makes you an excellent candidate.

Here’s a five-step framework to writing a solid cover letter:

1. Lead with a story that showcases your strongest accomplishment or achievement relevant to the job at hand. Just one to three sentences is all you need — keep it simple.

2. Formally state you’re interested in the position including the job title and mentioning the employer’s name.

3. If you were referred to the position, mention your referrer by name.

4. Use one to three sentences to outline your approach to or philosophy of the work. Then use that as a framing device to mention other central accomplishments in your career. Connect those results to something positive about the job or the employer.

5. End with a statement about your availability for an interview, mentioning your resume is enclosed or attached, and thank them for their time and consideration.

Once written, use a traditional marketing approach to make sure you’ve covered all your bases: AIDA, which stands for attention, interest, desire and action. That’s the path you want to move your reader along in those few hundred words. Capture their attention, spark their interest, ignite their desire and lead them to taking an action — calling, emailing or otherwise connecting with you for an interview.

Career Stories columnist Dan Shortridge is a nationally certified resume writer, marketing consultant and author. Email him and submit questions for future columns at

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