In the job application process, the cover letter usually represents the first opportunity you have to communicate directly with a hiring organization.  Smart jobseekers take advantage of this opportunity to engage the hiring organization and establish themselves as strong candidates, both through the content and the style of the letter.

This week’s column explores five easy-to-follow strategies for writing a winning cover letter.

Tip #1: Get In, Get Noticed, Get Out

The goal of a cover letter is to give a hiring manager enough information to consider you an interesting candidate.  A common pitfall of cover letters is giving too much or irrelevant information.  A good cover letter is economical at three sections, usually one paragraph each, and includes the following:

* First Section – Introduction and connection to organization’s mission

* Second Section – Summary of your skills/background as they pertain to the position

* Third Section – Thank you, contact instructions, and closing

Sticking to this format ensures that you are providing all of the key information sought by the hiring manager, while keeping it to a length that is accessible and easy to read.

Tip #2: Personalize Your Opening

The golden rule of cover letters is simple: create a personal and unique cover letter for every job application.  A one-size-fits-all approach to a cover letter is sure to land your application at the bottom of a hiring manager’s pile.

Personalizing your letter begins with the greeting.  If a specific contact name is not provided in the job description, do not open your cover letter with “To Whom It May Concern” or, even worse, “Dear Sir.” Do research on the organization’s web site to find the right contact.  You may find the name of the director of the department in which your desired job is located or you may find someone in human resources.  As a last resort, address your application to the Executive Director of the organization. This shows that you took the time to research the organization and will always be viewed more favorably than an impersonal greeting.

From there, explain why you are passionate about the mission of the organization.  Communicate the substance behind your passion; instead of stating, “I always wanted to help people,” try “Because I was raised with amazing educational opportunities, it’s personally very important to me to make sure that other people have access to those opportunities as well.” The more personal and compelling your connection to the organization’s mission is, the more likely your cover letter will be read in its entirety.

Tip #3: Connect the Dots

In the second section, create a connection between your skills and background and the job requirements.  Remember that your cover letter accompanies your resume, so do not simply re-state all of the information already listed on the resume. Use your critical thinking skills to really analyze the job description.  Beyond the specific qualifications listed, what can you determine about what this organization is really looking for in this role?  Use your cover letter to demonstrate how your skills and experience match with what they want.

Avoid general statements like, “I know I am the best person for the job.” It is more effective to let your skills and experience demonstrate the strength of your qualifications.

Remember to also address any cultural or personality attributes sought by the hiring organization.  Include examples that illustrate personal traits such as leadership, teamwork, flexibility, or other qualities valued by the organization.

As many hiring organizations value diversity, freely identify yourself as a person of color, having multicultural experience, and/or possessing attributes that could add to the overall diversity of the organization.  In many cases, illustrating your fit with an organization?s culture is just as important as your skills and experience.

Tip #4: Close with Style

The third section is all about wrapping up your cover letter neatly and elegantly. Use this opportunity to thank the organization for considering your application and to reiterate your enthusiasm for the position, organization, and mission. This is also where you can provide instructions on how and when to contact you, generally a phone number and email address.

Remember that you must ensure that you have a professional email account.  You can create a free account at Yahoo, Hotmail, or Gmail.  Generally, your first and last name or initials (or some combination of both) are acceptable.  This is the contact email address you should include in both your cover letter and resume.

Tip #5: Do a Test Run

Before you send your cover letter to a potential employer, check the job description for any specific instructions.  At the bottom of most postings, there are generally instructions for how the organization would like to receive applications.  For example, do they want to receive cover letters as attachments or in the body of the email?  Do they want you to include a list of references with your application?  Or do they want you to answer a specific question in your cover letter?  Be sure to follow the specific instructions for how to submit your application and what to include in your cover letter. This demonstrates your attention to detail, another very important characteristic for most hiring organizations.

Now comes the time to employ your “editor” — ask the best writer you know to proofread your cover letter for typos, grammatical errors, and any inappropriate wording such as humor, slang, or emoticons (happy faces have no place in a cover letter or any other professional communication!).  Also check for adequate variation in sentence structure. Do not begin every sentence with “I have” Remember, this is a real-life example of your writing ability, a skill that is highly valued by almost every nonprofit position.

Finally, test sending the cover letter in the format desired by the organization to your own email account.  This will allow you to make any adjustments in formatting before sending your application to the actual organization.  As a general rule, keep formatting to a minimum so that it will be preserved across different email or word processing programs.

Final Thoughts

A thoughtful and well-written cover letter is taken seriously by organizations.  A good cover letter can strengthen your application and help you get to the next stage of the process; a poor cover letter can result in the instant disqualification of your candidacy.  Take advantage of this opportunity to make a great impression!