Writing a cover letter can be a daunting and frustrating task and it’s easy to imagine it as a pretty unimportant part of the job application process. Recycling the same salutation and content over and over again might seem simple and effective enough, however, a cleverly-customized cover letter can often be the determining factor in whether or not a candidate’s resume will be considered, or even seen.
These days, many larger organizations and online job search sites use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to narrow down large pools of talent and screen potential job candidates before a human ever even lays eyes on a contender’s credentials.
So, how can you create a letter compelling enough to make the cut?
The solution is actually quite simple. Keywords.
An ATS, and even a living, breathing hiring manager, are both scanning your cover letter for certain keywords. Specifically, keywords that they’ve mentioned in their job advertisement or those that are mentioned in the organization’s mission statement, and even the names of programs and/or services provided, as well as the name of the hiring manager. In this way, the prospective employer can begin to discern just how closely you have read, and fit within, the job requirements, in addition to whether or not you’ve researched the company. But, what exactly are keywords, in this context, and what’s the most effective way to use them in a cover letter?
Keywords (or perhaps more accurately, key phrases) are industry-specific and used to showcase specialized skills, education, training, and experiences that are directly relevant to the role. Keep your eyes peeled for phrases like, ‘attract digital subscribers,’ ‘develop efficient sourcing strategies,’ and ‘provide technical expertise and leadership in the design and development of new software programs.’
Be careful not to confuse keywords with buzzwords.
Buzzwords (which can also come in the form of phrases), although helpful, tend to be more generic in nature and can be applied across any organization in any industry. A couple common categories buzzwords can be broken down into include Action Words, Skill Words and Recognition Words. Some respective examples are, ‘collaborated’ and ‘cut costs,’ ‘team-player’ and ‘hard-worker’ and ‘honored for or recognized for.’
While it can be helpful to sprinkle a few of these buzzwords into your letter in some places, overall, these vague descriptions don’t hold much value and aren’t particularly applicable to the position for which you are applying. Meaning, they mostly leave a hiring manager or ATS unimpressed—especially if they’re standing alone without any connection to a keyword or authentic example of your experience.
So, once you’ve scanned the job posting and chosen a couple of compelling keywords that will help your application make it through the initial screening process, the next step is to use those exact phrases to show, rather than just tell, how your past experience, training or education make you a valuable addition to the team. (Now is also a good time to sprinkle a few of those strategic buzzwords into the mix, since you’ll be able to attach them to the specific phrase or example you’re using.)
Instead of simply writing that you’re a ‘collaborative team-player with the ability to develop efficient sourcing strategies,’ share about an instance in your career or life that backs this information up.
Try writing, ‘collaborated cross-functionally with Logistics and Finance Teams in order to develop efficient sourcing strategies and bring lower costs to company consumers during the supply shortages of the Covid-19 pandemic.’
This sentence not only catches attention with keywords, but drives home the idea of actual experience in a related area by offering an applied illustration.
The more personal and customized to the job you’re able to make your keywords and examples, the more unique and outstanding your cover letter will appear in an overwhelming sea of applicants—not to mention a lot less mundane to write.