March 23, 2014

ON THE JOB: The horrifying cover letter

By Shannon Niedzwicki Guest columnist

---- — When students come to my office to get some help on job searches or resumes, they often ask, “What is ‘the cover letter’?” or “Do I really need a cover letter? Nobody reads it.” The answer is “Yes! You do need a cover letter!” For every employer who may overlook your cover letter, there are four who won’t. The goal of the job search is to set yourself apart from the competition; providing a cover letter will do just that.

The problem is that job seekers often don’t know what a cover letter actually is, or what one should include. I’m a huge advocate of cover letters because they offer a great opportunity for you as a job seeker to connect the dots between your resume and, well, you! The resume is a more formal, hopefully well-organized masterpiece that sells your accomplishments. A cover letter, on the other hand, gives you free range to elaborate on those accomplishments and maybe even show a bit of your personality.

As with any communication, when writing a cover letter, the most important thing to keep in mind is your audience, in this case the employer. Where you are applying, the employer and the job description all come into play. Be direct in your letter and state what position you are applying, where you are applying and where you found the job opportunity. This should come in the first or second paragraph so there’s no confusion for the reader of your letter. Once that is out of the way, let them know that you are excited about this position or opportunity. Show your passion for your career!

Next, you want to elaborate on some of your accomplishments and be sure to use key words from the job description. This is crucial; some companies have HR software that will look for certain words in your cover letter and resume before moving it on in the process. Key words are the words that they use to describe a certain job, experience, education or ideal candidate.

This is also a great opportunity to tell your story or make a connection with the company. Perhaps you have a large gap in work history because you stayed at home with your kids. Perhaps you have a personal connection with the company because values it expresses — say, its use of eco-friendly materials — mesh with your values. This is a great way to connect with the employer as all those applications are filtered down to the top five that get an interview.

I always encourage ending a cover letter by thanking the employer for his or her time and for considering you for the position. A great way to demonstrate your reliability is to state what materials you have enclosed, for example, your resume and references, as well as your intention to follow up within a specified timeframe. The second part could be scary for some; tackle it if you are confident enough to make that follow-up contact. It can show both your reliability and your determination to get the job.

So back to my first question. Are cover letters important? Yes! If anything, the cover letter tells that prospective employer that you are professional and willing to go the extra mile. Priceless!

Shannon Niedzwicki, director of Career Services for Ivy Tech Community College Kokomo Region, writes an occasional series of columns on finding jobs and succeeding in the workplace. For more information, email Niedzwicki at