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Cover Letter Q&A

In a competitive job market, you can’t afford to treat the cover letter as a last-minute task. Learn how to write a cover letter that gets results.

April 16, 2009
from Robert Half Finance & Accounting

To win over prospective employers and land job interviews today, accounting applicants need to take full advantage of every self-promotional tool available. Yet many candidates make the mistake of relying solely on their resume to sell themselves. In an extremely competitive job market, you can’t afford to treat the cover letter as a last-minute task, or worse, fail to write one. The following frequently asked questions address how (and why) to craft a winning cover letter:

Q: Why do I even need a cover letter?

A: There are multiple benefits of writing cover letters, not the least of which is the fact that employers find them helpful. In a Robert Half International survey, 86 percent of executives said cover letters are valuable when evaluating job candidates. A strategically written letter spotlighting specific reasons you feel you’re the perfect person for the job will pique the interest of hiring managers, enticing them to take a closer look at your resume. If you choose not to submit a cover letter, you’re missing out on a terrific opportunity to make a great first impression.

Q: What is the appropriate length of a cover letter?

A: The best cover letters are clear, compelling and concise. Keep your cover letter to three paragraphs if you’re submitting it electronically. A traditional cover letter that will be faxed or mailed should consist of three to five paragraphs, and be limited to one page.

Q: From an etiquette standpoint, should I start my cover letter with “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Employer” or “Dear Sir or Madam”?

A: None of the above. Address your letter to the person hiring for the position instead of using a generic salutation. If the employment ad doesn’t mention whom to contact, make a quick call to the company and ask for the hiring manager’s name and title. This extra effort demonstrates your resourcefulness and enthusiasm about the job. Plus, it’s courteous and ensures that your letter will make it to the right person.

Q: What is the benefit of a “targeted” cover letter? Can’t I just submit the same cover letter to every company?

A: To stand out from the crowd, avoid using a one-size-fits-all approach. Different organizations have different needs. While it’s smart and efficient to create a solid basic cover letter, always customize the document to play up your skills, qualifications and achievements most relevant to each opportunity. Use the job description as your guide. For one position you might focus on your proven client-management expertise and ability to communicate complex financial data to non-financial audiences; while for another you may want to emphasize your industry certifications and mastery of specialized software programs.

In addition, do some homework on each potential employer. Only 44 percent of executives said it’s common for applicants to use a cover letter to show they’ve researched the job, according to another Robert Half International survey. Get a leg up on your competition by reviewing the company’s website, marketing materials and recent annual reports, and then weave your knowledge of the firm into your cover letter.

Q: How much personality can I put into my cover letter?

A: A little personality goes a long way. Writing a clever and attention-grabbing introductory sentence is generally fine, but it’s best to stick to the facts and present straightforward, well-organized information — especially in today’s economic environment. You risk not being taken seriously by time-strapped hiring managers if your cover letter is filled with witty wordplay, lighthearted career anecdotes or playful boasting.

Q: The economic downturn hit my previous employer hard and I was laid-off. Despite my best efforts, I’ve been out of work for months. How should I handle this employment gap in my cover letter?

A: First off, you’re in good company. Through no fault of their own, many accounting and finance professionals now have a break in their work history due to the recession. Proactively allay any concerns about a job gap on your resume by using the cover letter to briefly explain your situation. Take a sentence or two to describe the circumstances and highlight the steps you’ve taken to keep your skills current, whether through temporary assignments, professional development courses or pro bono work.

Q: I’ve heard that even small mistakes you make in your resume can hurt you. Do hiring mangers really look for or notice tiny, insignificant writing errors?

A: Yes. In cases where your meaning is still clear, it’s not so much the error itself that is harmful to you but rather the inattention to detail and sloppiness these mistakes reflect. Robert Half’s research consistently shows that just one or two spelling slip-ups or grammatical goofs on a resume or cover letter can damage an applicant’s chances of securing an interview. Given the competition for jobs today, don’t give a prospective employer any reason to question your professionalism or communication abilities. Proofread thoroughly.

Q: OK, but writing isn’t my forte. What can I do to ensure my cover letter is free of grammatical and spelling mistakes?

A: Try to overcome your intimidation by developing a step-by-step proofreading process. In addition to running spell-check, read your cover letter several times aloud. (Speaking the words rather than just looking at them can be helpful in flagging errors.) And although it sounds odd, consider reading your document backwards to force yourself to focus on each individual word. And as a final precaution, ask an eagle-eyed friend, family member or mentor to review your cover letter for typos and tone.

Founded in 1948, Robert Half Finance & Accounting, a division of Robert Half International, is the world’s first and largest specialized financial recruitment service. The company has more than 360 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at www.roberthalffinance.com.