Cover Letter Comparison Style

Use the t-format to tailor your cover letters for each job application.

Many of you out there have asked me about cover letters. What do I say? What should I not say? Is there a general one I can use for all my applications? Is there a template you can give me? Do I really have to write one?

Here’s what I think. I’ve talked to a lot of recruiters while working at Ladders, and about 50 percent of them say the cover letter is essential. The other 50 percent admit they never look at them and jump straight into the resume.

So what does that mean for you?

You better write that cover letter! When you’re submitting an application, how do you know what side of the fence that recruiter falls on? Better safe than sorry, right?

I know that as a job seeker, it’s really hard to understand how these recruiters operate. We could talk for hours about recruiter behavior and how frustrating it can be when we don’t hear back or get feedback. But that’s another topic for another day …

Here’s what you should keep in mind for today. They’re busy. I mean, really busy. They’re typically trying to fill a number of positions at the same time, all with hiring managers hovering over their shoulders or bombarding them with emails, wanting to know when they’ll have resumes to review for their open positions.

So it’s in your best interest to make it as easy as humanly possible for a recruiter to quickly scan your cover letter and get the important information out of there. There are a number of ways this can be done. If you’ve come up with something that’s getting you a ton of responses, keep using it (don’t fix something that’s not broken!)

But if you’re struggling with the cover letter, check out one format that I’ve always liked – it’s called the “t-format”.

The main components of your cover letter don’t really change:

  • The first section introduces you and then talks about why you are interested in the job and company. This is your chance to demonstrate you’ve done your homework and know something about the company or industry.
  • The middle section show why you are qualified to do this job – how does your experience and skill set meet the must-have core requirements of the position?
  • The last section closes the note, showing your enthusiasm and creating a “call to action”. You don’t just ask them to review your resume; you let them know when you will follow up with them about your application.

The t-format comes into play with the middle section. It’s designed to show a recruiter how you stack up against the job requirements quickly and clearly. Recruiters look at a resume for an average of 6 seconds – how long do you think they spend on your cover letter? My guess is not very long.

To write a t-format cover letter, make two columns for the middle section: the left column is “Your Needs” and the right column is “My Qualifications”. Go through the job description and pick out what you think are the must-haves for the job.

Remember that a job description will have a long laundry list of ideal nice-to-have skills. Your job is to choose the top three requirements that match your experience. If you’re trying to make a career transition and have to get a little creative by choosing a requirement that doesn’t seem as high-priority, so be it. These requirements will become the mini sections under the “Your Needs” column. Now write a little blurb for each of the requirements in the “My Qualifications” column. Try to reference examples of your work that demonstrate how you meet each of the hiring manager’s primary needs.

Take a look at thissample job description and cover letter to get a better sense of what this would look like. I’ve marked them up to highlight where the must-have requirements were pulled from, and how I incorporated them into the cover letter.

Don’t forget to make sure whatever you highlight in your cover letter is easy to identify on your resume. You may need to make a few tweaks to the resume to that it speaks more clearly to the must-haves in the job description.

Try this exercise out and compare the cover letter to what you would typically write. Does this seem clearer? Give it a try with your next few applications and see if there’s a difference in the response rate. Remember, since approximately 50 percent of recruiters aren’t interested in your cover letter, you’ll need to try this out with a number of your applications before you can really determine if it’s making a difference.

More from Ladders

Your resume is ready. You've just found your dream job opening at an organization you adore. Ready to cinch that interview?

Not without a cover letter that seals the deal. 

Ignore the haters who say the cover letter is dead. If written purposefully, it's an opportunity to stand out and show effort — making applicants who skip the letter look worse by comparison.

"Cover letters are the first thing I read," said Rachel Marcuse, vice president of people operations at non-profit NextGen Climate, which has hired 500 people — mostly millennials — in the past three months.

Your cover letter is an opportunity to spell out your "whys" and "hows," Marcuse said, as opposed to the "whats" and "wheres" of your resume.

"I'm looking for them to paint a story of what they know how to do, and how those skills connect with what we need," she said.

As long as you avoid disastrous mistakes, there's little downside to writing a cover letter. Yes, you can affordably outsource this job, but hiring managers are wary of boilerplate letters.

Here's how to suck it up and write your own way to your next dream job.

To whom do you address a cover letter? Find the hiring manager — and research the firm.

The verdict is in: "To whom it may concern" is weak. 

Recruiters say there is no excuse for omitting the name of a hiring manager, given how easy it is to find people's names and titles on LinkedIn, or other professional networks or the company's website. 

When applicants direct their cover letter to a specific person, "it shows me that they have done their research," said Marcuse.

If, after a good search, you still can't turn up a name, just leave out the salutation altogether, she said.

And while you're sleuthing around on LinkedIn or the firm's website, find out all you can about the company. 

The cover letter should, "tell me you've read the job description, know something about the organization and how your skills match the opening," said Sherry Ettleson, an executive search consultant based in Washington, D.C.

Bland boilerplate phrases like, "I would like to work in your organization," or worse, "I'd like to work in your company" — when the job is actually with a non-profit organization — will sink you, she said.

How to begin a cover letter: Open strong and name-drop quickly. 

Backing into your letter with, "Good day, I hope you are well. I am writing to you to apply for the communications position that I heard about in Communications Daily," is what writers call throat-clearing. 

It's a waste of valuable real estate and will doom your cover letter before it gets off the ground.

Jump right to the point: You need to say you're interested in the position, (ideally) name drop a contact at the company who alerted you to the opening, and, crucially, say in one sentence why you would be a perfect fit for the job.

The Muse has some helpful inspiration for cover letter openers, most of which highlight your passion and interest in the work.

Both Ettleson and Marcuse say conveying passion is key — rather than just regurgitating your resume.

"[Applicants] need to pitch in the cover letter how they are going to use their energy in that organization's mission," said Marcuse.

Being clear and engaging right at the top of your letter also shows you're a good writer — and, by extension, a good thinker, Ettleson said.

Important cover letter tip: Say why you're a fit — and how you'll help out. 

An eye-tracking study by the Ladders career site found that recruiters actually only look at your resume for a whopping 6 seconds. 

Your cover letter is an opportunity to show employers more of your "story," said Ettleson: Just remember to focus on your value — not your desires.

"Please don't tell me why this job would be good for you," she said. "Tell me why you are good for this job. What skill and experience would you bring to the organization?"

To aid the flow, and to keep your letter from getting an acute case of "I-itis," Ettleson recommends the use of transitional phrases like: "Throughout my career in X-industry," or "Having spend X-number of years on Y-skill," or "During my time at X-company," to share how your experience informs and supports specific work you'd do at the new company.

That's hard if you haven't had much experience, of course.

"Folks with less professional experience can draw on leadership opportunities they may have had in college," said Marcuse.

Even positions you may think of as less impressive — like being a server, having a paper route, or volunteering on your college recycling committee — can be helpful in demonstrating responsibility, she said.

When writing a cover letter, don't be too cute, arrogant, bland or sloppy. 

Yes, recruiters "are getting hundreds, sometimes thousands of applications for positions," says Marcuse.

Particularly if you lack an inside connection to the company, you may feel desperate to stand out from the crowd. But don't write in a way that is overly precious at the risk of your application.

"I love getting to know your quirky bits," said Marcuse, "but there has to be a balance with real substance."

Moral of the story: Have an honest friend review your letter before sending it off, to make sure it's not too over-the-top.

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