How do you get your cover letter to stand out in the pile? By using the pile to your advantage.

Your application package is freshly reformatted and has no typos – so why aren't you getting any interviews? In my experience as a hiring manager and an executive coach, your cover letter may be the answer.

Recruiters (and hiring managers) can spend as little as six seconds on your application package. With dozens of candidates to consider, incoming e-mail pings, and co-workers going in and out, they are busy, distracted, and spread thin.

So, how do you get your cover letter to stand out in the pile? By using the pile to your advantage.

Let me be frank. Most cover letters in that pile are not great. To start, they use the word “passion” a lot. They go on to say some version of “I am a dependable, driven, motivated self-starter with great time management skills.” In short, they are too generic and too focused on the candidate (the “I-me-my” syndrome).

If you think you could use cover letter help, you are in luck. I have three tests and cover letter tips that can uncover the problems with your cover letter. These tests are based on a fantastic book Do It! Marketing by David Newman. Do you have your cover letter printed? Great. Let's play - start with the first cover letter tip below!

The “Black marker” test

Get a black marker, and black out your name on the cover letter. Could it be mistaken for someone else's? Could you just cut out a different name and paste it in without anyone being the wiser? Along the same lines, could you black out the name of the company you addressed it to, and replace it with another company?

The “So what?” test

Look at every statement you make in your cover letter, and ask yourself one compelling question: “So what?” Does your cover letter offer a compelling, value-based answer?

The “Prove it!” test

Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, cites research estimating that 50 percent of people lie on their application package. Hiring managers assume that a good portion of resumes and cover letters in their review pile are not truthful. Do you prove any of your statements?

How did your cover letter do in these tests? If it failed one (or all three) of the tests, congratulations. Now that we know what is not working, we can jump into maximizing your cover letter's potential for impact and connection with cover letter tips.

If your cover letter failed the “Black Marker” test, you have a personal branding disconnect.

Turn your cover letter into a one of a kind message

Please delete “To whom it may concern” and the rest of boilerplate language from your cover letter. I know that you may have used a template, which makes it easy for you to send out 10 application packages in under 2 hours, but that approach is not helping you stand out, so let us try something different.

Here's some of our best cover letter help: Start with a fresh sheet of paper, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and pretend that the hiring manager is a human being (as an aside, she would appreciate it if you did the homework and found her real name). Now, pretend that you have known this person for years. Maybe she has a dog, hates sushi, likes to watch The Bachelor, and has a job opening she needs filled yesterday.

What would you say to her?

Highlight your strengths

Stay away from the generic “I have good communication skills” in favor of “I am an expert communicator with experience bringing diverse backgrounds together to solve a problem.” It is longer, but also stronger and more specific.

Everyone has a superpower – know and own yours! If you have trouble defining your strengths, consider using a tool like Strengthsfinder, or ask your colleagues and your family what they can always count on you for.

Communicate who you are, what you do, and who you do it for

The scariest thing about personal branding is that it defines you – which means you are no longer a perfect fit for every opportunity. If you say you are an expert at solving the IT puzzles for small and medium size professional service firms, you are not quite as attractive to big corporations that sell widgets. Are you willing to make a strategic decision to let go of some opportunities – and in exchange become the perfect choice for a medium-size consulting firm that needs an integrated IT solution?

If your cover letter failed the “So what?” test, our next cover letter tip is to connect what you do to the value it delivers for the company.

Address a specific challenge that the company (or the industry) is facing

Understanding industry challenges is a fantastic way to demonstrate your expertise. How do you know what to write? Simple. Google it. Look for recent press releases, transcripts from quarterly analyst calls (if it is a publicly traded company), and surprising industry statistics and facts.

Then, link the challenge to your skillset. Show the reader that you are ready and willing to help them solve the puzzle.

If your cover letter failed the “Prove it!” test, your next step is to support your statements.

Weave in concrete examples of success

Make a list of your achievements, and select a few that are relevant for this job. Did you bring in more donors than anyone else to the latest fundraiser? Did you shorten the audit timeframe from four months to five weeks? Your goal is to demonstrate that you did more than simply punch in and keep a chair warm from 9 to 5. Connect your achievements to value for the company.

Use testimonials and quotes from your past performance reviews

If your clients, co-workers or bosses genuinely enjoyed working with you, or if your performance reviews have some particularly amazing commentary, you can weave those pieces into the cover letter. They serve as a confirmation of your strengths, and reinforce that you are likeable, will do a great job, and will fit in with the team.

In summary, generic cover letters do not work. They may be quick to generate (those “find and replace” functions in Word sure are efficient at changing company names in a second!) but they do nothing to highlight your fit, showcase your strengths, or demonstrate genuine interest in joining this specific company. If you are going invest time and effort into an application, make the hiring manager smile by using these suggestions to make your cover letter personal, targeted, and attractive.

Need help with your resume? Take advantage of our free critique today!

Photo credit: Justin Smith/Wikimedia Commons, CC-By-SA-3.0

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