Most online job application systems don’t accept cover letters. But if Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry gets his way, agencies will eliminate knowledge, skills and abilities essays (KSAs) and base their applications solely on cover letters and résumés.
So if your next job application requires a cover letter, design it to quickly introduce yourself, convey your enthusiasm for your target opening and agency, concisely review your best educational and professional qualifications, and showcase your communication skills.
As one hiring manager advises, “You will probably beat 95 percent of your competition just by submitting an error-free cover letter that concisely describes how you meet the opening’s requirements.”
To craft winning cover letters:
*Treat your cover letter like the potentially make-or-break document it is. Your letter will probably be the first part of your application that hiring managers read, and first impressions usually are lasting impressions. What’s more, your letter may be the only part of your application that hiring managers read. Even managers who only skim applications will read a one-page cover letter from top to bottom.
Even though cover letters are key to making good first impressions, many job-seekers thoughtlessly dash them off at the last minute. Instead, you should take time to create a dynamic, first-rate letter, whether you write it as the first or last step in your application preparation.
*Design your cover letter as a fast read. No matter how experienced you are, your cover letters should not exceed one page. Save space by identifying your target job in a “Re” line.
*Don’t open your cover letter with boring, generic clichés, such as “Enclosed please find my application” or “I am contacting you in order to …” Instead, research your target organization by surfing its Web site, Bestplacestowork.org and recent articles posted online by newspapers and magazines. Then, craft an energetic opener that demonstrates your knowledge of your target organization and explains how you would contribute to its success. For example: “As a contract manager with an MBA and five years of experience in innovative contract management, I would be eager to contribute to EPA’s efforts to streamline procurement procedures, which were recently covered in Fast Company.”
Another example: “I am eager to contribute to the mission of [name of target agency]because [your reason goes here]. I have previously demonstrated my dedication to this field by earning the following credentials: [List your credentials in bullets or in a “Your Needs/My Credentials” table].” Convey your credentials in achievement-oriented terms. Describe how they improved your employer’s operations; don’t repeat your job descriptions or your entire résumé.
*Purge your cover letter of presumptuous statements, such as: “I know you will find that I am a perfect match for the position.” Instead, describe how your credentials match your target job’s requirements, and let hiring managers decide for themselves that you’re the ideal applicant.
*Remember: Hiring managers only care about what you would do for them — not about what you want from them. So use terms such as “offer” and “contribute” rather than citing the opportunities for yourself.
*Prominently position your security clearances or veterans preference, and any noncompetitive appointments for which you are applying. Also explain any special circumstances, such as your willingness to relocate.
*Eliminate acronyms and any other terms that may stump hiring managers.
*Repeatedly proofread a hard-copy version of your cover letter, and then solicit feedback on it from trusted advisers.
If the application for your target job does not accept cover letters, write the opening of your application’s first KSA with a concise overview of your credentials, even if such information is not specifically requested. You will thereby start your KSAs with an impressive bang, hit hiring managers with your best shot and ensure that they will learn about your most important selling points even if they don’t read your entire application.
— Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is IGotTheJob.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.