20 employers tell us what they want to see in cover letters from students

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I recently went to the Partnerships for Employment job fair at RIM Park in Waterloo, Ont., to ask 20 recruiters and HR professionals if they read cover letters and, if so, what they are looking for.

Of the 20 employers I spoke with:

  • 12 said they read the cover letter of each applicant
  • of those 12, six read the cover letter before the resumé and four read the cover letter after the resumé
  • four employers claimed they quickly scanned the resumé
  • four employers admitted to not reading the cover letter at all

Only one employer out of the 20 I surveyed said they preferred to receive no cover letter.  Whether it gets read, skimmed or ignored, it seems like the cover letter is still an essential part of a job application that shows you have made the time and effort to apply for the position.

Writing a cover letter can be tricky business.  To identify some key cover letter do’s and don’t, I asked the same group of 20 employers what they look for in a cover letter.

Employers want to see these things in your cover letters:

  • Include your degree title and school in the first paragraph
  • Include the title of the position you’re applying for and the company name in the first paragraph
  • Make a personalized letter, if possible (do not write, “To whom it may concern…”)
  • List the company name and address in formal letter style
  • Not more than one page
  • No grammar or spelling mistakes
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the company to show the recruiter you’ve done some research
  • Create a targeted letter (if you’ve sent the same form letter to 10 companies, don’t expect a call back)
  • Highlight related skills and experiences, but don’t copy word for word from your resumé
  • Elaborate on related skills or experiences
  • Include something unique about yourself

Based on the information I gathered from each employer, the most important part about writing a cover letter is to demonstrate that you have made a unique effort. Show the employer you understand what position you are applying for, what company you are applying to, and how your skills and experience relate to the job position.

This kind of research takes time and effort on your part, but can be easily recognized from a generic cover letter sent out to 10 different companies.

Although there is no perfect formula for writing a cover letter, if you are able to demonstrate your understanding and enthusiasm for the position and company you are applying to, you will be on your way to landing an interview.

Photo credit: Partnerships for Employment
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