If you stay abreast of the career industry, you’ve probably heard it before: all recruiters care about is the resume. Cover letters are nice to have, but you don’t really need to send one, and they are slowly but surely becoming the thing of the past. Or do they?

Here at ResumeLab, we’ve decided to get to the bottom of this predicament. We polled over 200 recruiters and HR pros to see if cover letters could tip the scales in candidates’ favor. Some responses were predictable, while others were quite unexpected.

Below are a few key highlights we’ve uncovered:

  • A full 83 percent of HR. professionals think cover letters are essential when making hiring decisions.
  • More than seven in 10 recruiters expect to receive a cover letter even if they mark them as “optional” in job ads.
  • Less than 40 percent of applicants care to attach a cover letter even when it’s mandatory.
  • Over a third (36 percent) of hiring professionals start the evaluation process with the cover letter.

Source: ResumeLab

So—unless you want to short-circuit your next job hunt, writing a cover letter in 2020 is a must. They allow you to differentiate yourself from other job candidates as well as highlight what’s most relevant in your experience in a way that’s less obvious with a resume alone.

That’s why we’ve compiled some practical tips to help you craft a job-winning cover letter.

Cover Letter: The Basics

Think of cover letters as an e-handshake. Fail to make a good first impression, and there’s a good chance the recruiter will move on to another job candidate.

That’s why you need to get the basics right and know how to introduce yourself in a cover letter for maximum impact.

What to Include in a Cover Letter?

  • Your personal details, contact information, and date.
  • A professional and personal salutation.
  • An opening paragraph that highlights your two-three skills and professional accomplishments.
  • A second paragraph that explains why you’re the perfect fit for the company.
  • A third paragraph that provides reasons why the company is a perfect fit for you.
  • A strong finish with a solid closing paragraph.

How Long Should a Cover Letter Be?

The ideal cover letter length should be around 200–400 words depending on your professional experience, and it needs to be between half a page and one page long.

How to Format a Cover Letter?

  • Set one-inch margins across the board.
  • Choose left-align and skip justification because it’s against the rules of business letter formatting.
  • Use one or 1.15 spacing.
  • Opt for double spaces between paragraphs.
  • Save your cover in the PDF format, because it ensures the layout stays intact.

Do I Need to Tailor a Cover Letter for a Specific Job?

Your cover letter must be customized for each and every job you apply for. In fact, the more targeted it is, the better. Don’t ever send out a generic, cookie-cutter cover letter to the employer.

When Not to Include a Cover Letter?

When the job ad explicitly says you aren’t allowed to submit a cover letter.

3 Cover Letter Tips to Propel Your Application Success Rate

Writing a cover letter is no easy feat. You’ll have to spend every ounce of your time, blood, and sweat to get it right.

But—if you use the below tips to put some finishing touches to your cover letter, it’ll be well worth the investment.

Write an Attention-Grabbing Opening Paragraph

Here’s the thing: When you apply for a (corporate) job, you’ll be up against 250+ job candidates on average. As a result, most recruiters skim resumes for just 7.4 seconds before moving on to another application.

And while there aren’t reputable eye-tracking studies on cover letters, it’s safe to assume they don’t get much eye-time either. That’s why the opening paragraph of your cover letter will either spark interest in the recruiter or prompt them to pick another application from their inbox.

Good news? When writing an opening paragraph, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Instead, you can use some proven formula:

  1. Say something about the company to (1) show you did your research and (2) that your cover letter is custom-tailored to this specific position.
  2. Sprinkle a few measurable achievements from your past experience that go hand-in-hand with what the employer is looking for in the job ad.
  3. Skim the job posting for the challenges the company is trying to address by filling this role and assure them you’ll be a perfect fit.

Importantly, be sure to include tangible numbers in the opening paragraph—they’ll 11x your chances of getting the callback by spotlighting your value proposition right from the get-go.

Make Sure Your Cover Letter Is Robot-Approved

As I mentioned above, recruiters are overwhelmed with job applications.

That’s why they have to use applicant tracking systems (ATSs) to weed out unsuitable candidates on autopilot. ATSs like Taleo (a tool most recruiters use) parse candidates’ resumes looking for keywords and compare them against the job description.

But—what most job seekers don’t know is that Taleo treats a cover letter as searchable text just like a resume, and if it’s not ATS-optimized, human eyes will never see your application. That’s why it’s essential to get your cover letter robot-approved before you submit it to a recruiter. Here’s how:

  • Skim the job ad and write out the bits related to duties, key skills, and required experience.
  • Similar to your resume, pepper your cover letter with keywords you found in the job ad.
  • To test your cover letter match rate, consider using Jobvite’s paid cover letter scan feature.

Importantly: just like with resumes, keyword-stuffing your cover letter is a bad idea. After all, even if your application passes an ATS hurdle, an actual human will read both your resume and cover letter, so don’t try to cheat the system.

Make an Offer in the Closing Paragraph

Once the body of a cover letter is taken care of, most people put a formal closing at the very end using a standard sign-off phrase like “Sincerely,” or “Kind regards,” and send the cover letter away.

But—there’s a quick trick you can use to tip the scales in your favor and get the recruiter to schedule an interview with you: adding a postscript.

Put simply, it’s a snappy one-liner you place at the very bottom of your cover letter that entices the recruiter to call you. Here’s how it looks:

P.S.—I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss how my SEO and link-building skills helped me improve organic traffic by 200% for my previous company’s 2 core brands.

Here’s how to write yours:

  1. Mention one of your major career accomplishments from past roles that’s (partially) related to what the employer wants based on the job ad.
  2. Say you’ll be happy to provide more details.

About guest author Max Woolf, Resume Lab

Max Woolf is a career expert at ResumeLab. He’s passionate about helping people land their dream jobs through the expert career industry coverage. In his spare time, Max enjoys biking and traveling to European countries. You can hit him up on LinkedIn.

About Joseph Liu

Joseph Liu helps aspiring professionals relaunch their careers to do work that matters. As a keynote speaker, career & personal branding consultant, and host of the Career Relaunch podcast, his passion is helping people gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to pursue truly meaningful careers. Having gone through three major career changes himself, he now shares insights from building & relaunching global consumer brands to empower professionals and business owners to build & relaunch their personal brands.

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