It's reaching "Tastes Great… Less Filling" proportions: the controversy over the need to write customized cover letters has both sides of the argument deeply entrenched and intractable.

In one camp are those who believe that in today's market of applicant tracking systems – where sophisticated technology scans your resume long before any human eyeballs cast even a cursory glance – cover letters are as archaic as the paper on which they're written.

On the other side of the arena are the traditionalists who maintain that a well-written, customized cover letter enables an applicant to rise above the masses, show enthusiasm for the position, and connect on a personal level.

Saint Leo University's Director of Career Planning Rob Liddell advocates for the latter. He says cover letters are a golden opportunity to bridge the gap between a resume and real-world experience – to link the needs of your future employer (think positively) to your unique qualifications. And to sidestep this critical step is foolhardy at best.

Interviewed for The Office Professional's article, "Job Search: Cover Letters That Land Interviews," Liddell said:

"Well received, personable writing should communicate enthusiasm, passion, and warmth, but these are second-order effects. The primary aim of the cover letter is to persuade its reader to further consider the applicant's qualifications for an opening with an organization."

What's the most effective way to do that critical persuading?

Liddell offers the following steps to move your cover letter from tired to inspired.

Steps 1: Read the job description.

Read all the information provided about the job, the company, and the application process.


As you do, clearly identify the intended recipient of the letter and the position advertised. Your goal is to glean insight into the organization that will help you craft a customized letter on a specific topic (the job) for a target audience (the hiring manager).

Step 2: Research the company.

"Well-prepared applicants will invest the necessary energy, resources, and time to gain insight into their targeted employer," says Liddell. "Allow the Internet to color your research, but not to shape your impressions of a company."

To become more familiar with an organization, gather information about:

  • The current performance of the organization

  • The industry and market

  • Challenges presented by: competition, disruptive innovation, regulations, supply line logistics, and new technology.

For publicly traded companies, Liddell suggests reviewing the company's annual 10-K report.

Step 3: Create a customized list.

Develop a list of your previous experiences and skills that tie directly to a specific body of knowledge, the industry, or work process related to the company to which you are applying.

Go back to the required education, experience and skills in the job description and address each one with a specific example that relates to the position. Avoid generalities. The goal is "Show. Don't Tell."

These examples will be your letter's energy source. Focusing on this section first puts you in the right frame of mind to start developing your letter.

Step 4: Craft your cover letter.

Tone is key. According to Liddell, you don't want to be too relaxed and conversational, rather professional, respectful, and to the point.

First Paragraph

  • Introduce yourself in a way that sets you apart and creates interest.

  • Tell why you are writing the letter. If you're responding to a specific opening, refer to it and how you heard about it. If you're not aware of a specific opening, state your area of interest.

  • Mention anyone who recommended you contact the company.

  • Give information that demonstrates your specific interest in and knowledge about the company.

Second Paragraph

  • Summarize your academic or professional background.

  • Focus on specific skills, activities, accomplishments, and experiences. Include the list you created in step 3.

Third Paragraph

  • Ask for action such as an appointment. Suggest a time. Say you will call to set it up.

  • Express willingness to provide additional information.

  • Thank the reader for his/her time and consideration.

Step 5: Edit.

Your letter should fit on one page. Edit anything that reiterates what is already in your resume. Use action verbs that indicate results: "achieved," "accomplished," "improved," "delivered," "directed." Be clear and specific. Avoid jargon.

Step 6: Have someone read your letter.

"Nothing will short circuit an applicant's candidacy quicker than disagreeing with yourself within a "'work product' that you have exclusive control over," says Liddell.

"For example, you will have a difficult time convincing an employer that you 'have a keen eye for detail' and that you are 'are strong communicator' if your letter is riddled with obvious spelling and grammatical errors or uses a dismissive or flippant tone.

"Again, well prepared job applicants manage their time sufficiently so that they can share their submissions with a trusted colleague or friend, rework edits and inconsistencies and still have time to meet the posted deadlines."

The naked truth about cover letters.

The bare truth about cover letters is that they do play second-string to your resume.

That is until your resume arrives in front of a hiring manager.

Then your cover letter has the opportunity to sing – to differentiate you from the pack because it shows that your knowledge and experience uniquely qualify you for the position.

Which could become music to your ears when you hear….

"You're hired."

Have any other tips for writing an effective cover letter?

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Image Credit: Yamanize