The cover letter is an unavoidable part of the job search – one that causes consternation for many job seekers. An excellent letter can spark the interest of a potential employer and move your application on to the next stage of the hiring process. By writing a letter that is the appropriate length for the situation and career, you can boost your chances for employment success.
Conventional wisdom advises that the cover letter be no longer than one page. In general, it should be between half a page and a full page long. Any shorter, and you may not have the room to draw in the reviewer; any longer, and you run the risk of losing the reader's attention. Since hiring managers spend a notoriously short amount of time on each application – approximately six seconds, according to recent studies – the length is crucial.
One page is a deceptively difficult length. After you provide the usual business letter header and closing information, you are left with approximately three-quarters of the page for the cover letter text. In that space, you must present a compelling case that convinces the employer to take a closer look at your application. The letter must explain why you are applying and frame your past experience in a way that demonstrates your suitability for the position.
To accomplish these goals in your cover letter, brevity and good word choice are essential. Do away with conventional openings such as "My name is X, and I am applying for Y position." Since the reviewer has almost certainly read similar sentences hundreds of times, it can be an instant signal to tune out. A better approach is to start with a strong, persuasive statement. You might mention a referral from a well-known person in the hiring company or in the industry. Alternatively, start by telling a story that draws the reader in immediately.
The second and third paragraphs of the cover letter must accomplish two things: they must show that you've done your research and must explain how your experience makes you an asset. If you're aware that the company has recently undergone a financial crisis, for example, explain how you improved performance while dealing with a tight budget at your past job. Use jargon and industry details that establish you as an insider. End with a snappy closing – again, avoiding boilerplate language – and thank the reviewer for her time. In most cases, three or four paragraphs is a manageable length.
Although an excellent cover letter is not the be-all and end-all of a job search, it can be a crucial tool in the early stages. By paring down your language to keep your cover letter under a page in length, you can make the screening process easier for the hiring manager and increase your chances of getting an interview.
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