Dear Sam: A few of the positions I’m interested in applying for say that a cover letter is “optional.” Do you think I should still send one? – Lee

Dear Lee: A cover letter should be a key part of every application, regardless of whether it is required or requested. A cover letter is your opportunity to introduce yourself to a prospective employer, expand on and personalize your resume, and highlight how your skills and experiences will fulfill the employer’s needs. Many hiring managers feel that a cover letter (or lack thereof) is a direct reflection of a candidate’s level of interest and investment in the position. Moreover, a cover letter not only expresses your interest in the company and position, but also gives the employer the opportunity to observe your attentiveness to detail, spelling, grammar, and quality of your written communication.

A cover letter can also be used to share details about your candidacy that you may not want to include on your resume. For example, you can explain potential disqualifiers or delicate situations, such as a career change, a return to the workforce, or your reason for wanting to relocate. In most cases, it’s best to address these “red flags” preemptively so that a hiring manager’s concerns are put to rest.

Many candidates struggle with the idea of customizing cover letters for each position they apply for. It is true that you should avoid obviously templated cover letters with no targeted messaging, as this can come across as lazy and disingenuous. However, you should not have to create a new cover letter for each job you are interested in. If you have defined your career target when creating your resume—meaning you know what you want to do, who you are marketing your candidacy to, and what language will attract his or her interest—then your cover letter will be developed using that information as your guide. When you have taken time to truly understand what will appeal to your target audience, and have incorporated that content into your application materials, your cover letter will not need to be modified each time you apply for a position.

When structuring your cover letter, keep in mind some general “rules”:

Begin with an attention-grabbing opening

Avoid overly-used/generic openings, such as “Please consider me for the Sales Representative position advertised in…” It is a guarantee that hundreds of other candidates will open their cover letters in the exact same way. Instead, open your letter with a strong statement that grabs the reader’s attention and immediately presents you as a top achiever and stand-out candidate: “With a record of exceeding quotas, capturing new clients, and growing existing territories I can drive the results you seek in the Sales Representative position.”

Emphasize your key selling points throughout

Consider a paragraph, bullets, paragraph, close format, which key differentiators sprinkled throughout.

  • Paragraph 1: Grab attention and highlight key qualifiers
  • Paragraph 2: Explore and support (optional)
  • Bullets: Key accomplishments/contributions
  • Paragraph 3: Summary of candidacy
  • Paragraph 4: Follow up and thank you

This format allows a hiring manager to quickly scan through your key achievements and makes them want to learn more about you (therefore leading them to read your resume).

Adhere to accepted formatting guidelines

There are some ways to be creative with your cover letter (including using a two-column format, highlighting recommendations, including logos and graphics, and more), but as a rule, your cover letter should be no more than one page in length. You should also send your cover letter to a specific person. If you are unable to find a specific person, you can write “Dear Hiring Manager.” Avoid using “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam,” as those greetings are considered outdated.

Your personal brand extends beyond your resume, so avoid the mistake of treating your cover letter as an afterthought. It is a critical piece of your job application puzzle, and when approached strategically, can make a significant impression on a hiring manager. Best of luck!