Perfecting your cover letter to a "T"

Posted by Amanda Augustine

August 14, 2012 @ 01:30 PM

Use the t-format to tailor your cover letters for each job application.

Sample_T-Format_Cover_LetterMany of you out there have asked me about cover letters. What do I say? What should I not say? Is there a general one I can use for all my applications? Is there a template you can give me? Do I really have to write one?

Here’s what I think. I’ve talked to a lot of recruiters while working at TheLadders, and about 50 percent of them say the cover letter is essential. The other 50 percent admit they never look at them and jump straight into the resume.

So what does that mean for you?

You better write that cover letter! When you’re submitting an application, how do you know what side of the fence that recruiter falls on? Better safe than sorry, right?

I know that as a job seeker, it’s really hard to understand how these recruiters operate. We could talk for hours about recruiter behavior and how frustrating it can be when we don’t hear back or get feedback. But that’s another topic for another day …

Here’s what you should keep in mind for today. They’re busy. I mean, really busy. They’re typically trying to fill a number of positions at the same time, all with hiring managers hovering over their shoulders or bombarding them with emails, wanting to know when they’ll have resumes to review for their open positions.

So it’s in your best interest to make it as easy as humanly possible for a recruiter to quickly scan your cover letter and get the important information out of there. There are a number of ways this can be done.  If you’ve come up with something that’s getting you a ton of responses, keep using it (don’t fix something that’s not broken!)

But if you’re struggling with the cover letter, check out one format that I’ve always liked – it’s called the “t-format”.

The main components of your cover letter don’t really change:

  • The first section introduces you and then talks about why you are interested in the job and company. This is your chance to demonstrate you’ve done your homework and know something about the company or industry.

  • The middle section show why you are qualified to do this job – how does your experience and skill set meet the must-have core requirements of the position?

  • The last section closes the note, showing your enthusiasm and creating a “call to action”. You don’t just ask them to review your resume; you let them know when you will follow up with them about your application.

The t-format comes into play with the middle section. It’s designed to show a recruiter how you stack up against the job requirements quickly and clearly. Recruiters look at a resume for an average of 6 seconds – how long do you think they spend on your cover letter? My guess is not very long.

To write a t-format cover letter, make two columns for the middle section: the left column is “Your Needs” and the right column is “My Qualifications”. Go through the job description and pick out what you think are the must-haves for the job.

Remember that a job description will have a long laundry list of ideal nice-to-have skills. Your job is to choose the top three requirements that match your experience. If you’re trying to make a career transition and have to get a little creative by choosing a requirement that doesn’t seem as high-priority, so be it. These requirements will become the mini sections under the “Your Needs” column. Now write a little blurb for each of the requirements in the “My Qualifications” column.  Try to reference examples of your work that demonstrate how you meet each of the hiring manager’s primary needs.

Take a look at this sample job description and cover letter to get a better sense of what this would look like. I’ve marked them up to highlight where the must-have requirements were pulled from, and how I incorporated them into the cover letter.

Don’t forget to make sure whatever you highlight in your cover letter is easy to identify on your resume. You may need to make a few tweaks to the resume to that it speaks more clearly to the must-haves in the job description.

Try this exercise out and compare the cover letter to what you would typically write. Does this seem clearer? Give it a try with your next few applications and see if there’s a difference in the response rate. Remember, since approximately 50 percent of recruiters aren’t interested in your cover letter, you’ll need to try this out with a number of your applications before you can really determine if it’s making a difference.

Amanda Augustine

Amanda Augustine is the Job Search Expert for TheLadders. She provides job search and career guidance for professionals looking to make their next career move. Have a question for Amanda? Submit your question here for a chance to have it answered in her weekly column, and be sure to follow her at @JobSearchAmanda on Twitter and “Like” her on Facebook for up-to-the-minute job-search advice.

Topics: Ask Amanda, Job Application & Follow Up