How to make your cover letter shine

Professional woman holding pen
Sybil Pressprich gives advice on cover letters
Sybil Pressprich: Tailor your message to every application you submit.

Cover letters are powerful tools in your quest for a new job. A good one can get you an interview and make you a top candidate. Even if the position you’re seeking doesn’t require much writing, it’s important to demonstrate your communication skills and tailor your message to both the employer and the job. Here are some tips for crafting a compelling message.

Address your letter to a specific person.

Start your letter by showing you did your homework. If the job posting doesn’t list the hiring manager’s name, search the employer’s website for clues. Unless the posting states that you shouldn’t call, consider picking up the phone to gather the details you need. Human resources may be able to help. In many cases, this department is your application’s first stop on its journey.

Addressing the letter to even one person in the hiring process will benefit you. If all else fails, go with “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Selection Committee.” Whatever you do, avoid “Dear Sir or Madam,” which is outdated.

Customize your message for each job application.

Recycling is good for the environment but bad for cover letters. If your cover letter sounds generic, the hiring team will think you’re just another face in the crowd. Convince them you’re uniquely qualified for the job they’re offering, not simply any job in your field. Using the job posting as a guide, highlight the skills that make you terrific for the position. Support each of your claims with a concrete example. For instance, if you claim to be organized, you might explain how this skill helped you oversee an event with a lengthy guest list.

Be clear and concise.

You need to make a strong first impression without looking like you’re trying too hard. In other words, aim for simplicity. State your message directly and get to the point quickly. This shows that you value others’ time and can set priorities. Resist the urge to be overly cute or clever, which hiring teams may misinterpret.

Format with care.

Choose a standard business-letter format with left-justified paragraphs and an easy-to-read font. It won’t distract from your message and can help readers feel comfortable with you.

Finally, have someone review your letter for clarity, spelling errors, and grammar issues. Madison Public Library offers this service to job seekers for free. Each appointment includes up to an hour of personalized assistance from a UW–Madison Writing Center tutor. For details, visit madisonpubliclibrary.org and search for “Madison Writing Assistance.”

Sybil Pressprich is a career and educational counselor in UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. Reach her at sybil.pressprich@wisc.edu. This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.