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Special Cover-Letter Formats Can Grab Employers' Attention
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
One of the challenges of getting an employer to pay attention to your cover letter is that letters tend to look uninviting, with large expanses of gray type, broken up only by paragraphs.
One solution, of course, is to make your letter as concise as possible so that it doesn't look like a daunting reading project. Be as brief as you can, and make sure your letter has a pleasing amount of white space. Keep your paragraphs short, and include no more than 4-5 paragraphs. Cover letters sent electronically in the body of an e-mail message should be especially brief. (See our article, Tips for a Dynamic Email Cover Letter).
You can also use special formats to make your letter more reader-friendly and enticing. These formats also call attention to your qualifications and enable you to tailor them very sharply to the requirements of the position you're applying for. This article describes four such formats:
Bullets. Bullet points can break up the text of your cover letter and draw the reader's eye to your most compelling selling points. Be sure you don't re-hash your resume's bullet points. And unlike bullet points on a resume, those on a cover letter should either be in complete sentences (instead of clipped, "telegraphed" resume language) or should complete the sentence that leads into the bulleted list.
See an example of a bulleted cover-letter section and a full cover letter with bullet points.
Word bullets. Word bullets (which can be used with regular bullets), also break up the text and are excellent for spotlighting words or phrases from the ad or job posting you're responding to. By pulling these words out of the ad, you can focus your letter sharply on how you meet the requirements that relate to those words.
See an example of a letter that uses word bullets.
The Two-Column Letter. A particularly effective way to deploy the specifics of an ad or job posting to your advantage is to use a two-column format (also known as a "T-formation" letter) in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer's want ad and in the right-hand column, your attributes that meet those qualifications. The two-column format is extremely effective when you possess all the qualifications for a job, but it can even sell you when you lack one or more qualification. The format so clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may be willing to overlook the areas in which your exact qualifications are deficient.
One of my former students describes her success in using the two-column format: "Several months ago, you referred me to your Web site where there was a sample of a cover letter using a 'you require/I offer' table format. Believe it or not, I sent in my resume along with a cover letter in this format to a job that was posted on Monster.com, and I actually got an interview!! The position is with [name of company], and I can't even imagine how many applicants they had. When I went in for the interview, the person that I met with complimented me on the cover letter and actually said that that's what got me in the door ahead of so many others!"
You can see three sample letters in a two-column format: Sample 1, Sample 2, and Sample 3.
Postscript. Adding a PS to your cover letter -- especially one that's handwritten -- is another great way to grab the employer's attention. Ideally, your postscript should encapsulate your Unique Selling Proposition -- the one quality that you feel will inspire employers to hire you above all other candidates.
See examples of cover-letter postscripts.
Why not try one of more of these cover-letter formats today to see they improve your response from employers?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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