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Effective Cover Letters 2013

It used to be that your cover letter was all about you. But things have changed.

The modern cover letter should focus first and foremost on the company it's directed to, career experts say. Gone are the days where you could spend a few paragraphs detailing your own accomplishments. Today, you also need to demonstrate a genuine interest in the company and prove you know how to help it.

"People need to focus their cover letters on the company they're applying to, not on themselves," says Dan Schawbel, author of best-selling book "Promote Yourself" and managing partner of consultancy Millennial Branding. "Show how you can make a difference for that company."

That's easier said than done, especially when you're trying to distinguish yourself among dozens or hundreds of other applicants. Below, career experts weigh in on the new essential guidelines to writing a successful cover letter.

1. Keep your letter short enough for someone to read in 10 seconds.

Three paragraphs is the ideal length, says Vicki Salemi, a career expert and author of "Big Career in the Big City." Use the first paragraph as an intro, the second for the meat, and the third to wrap up. The hiring manager giving a first read to your letter is probably going to spend 10 seconds or less on it, Salemi adds. They want to read something succinct.

2. Hook your reader's interest in the first sentence.

"It is with great interest that I write to apply for the position of..." is a great first line if you want to lose your reader's interest. It's dreadfully boring. Assuming you applied to the job online, the hiring manager already knows what the position is and that you're writing to apply. Instead, try a professional but bold statement that catches the reader's eye. Salemi suggests opening with a pitch, such as: "Looking for a dynamic marketing guru? Look no further. Here I am."

3. Pick two or three skills from the job description and show you have them.

Read the job description carefully and identify the top two or three qualities the company wants in a candidate, Salemi says. Then use your cover letter to demonstrate you have those skills, giving examples of when and how you've used them in the past. Show that you're equipped to make a difference from day one.

4. Use numbers and statistics to back up your claims.

It's good to say you're experienced with social media. But it's much, much better to say you led a successful social media campaign that generated 3.2 million followers and increased revenue by 3%. The goal, Schawbel says, is to present yourself as a proven results-getter and show that you can replicate your past successes at a new company.

4. Don't just rehash your résumé in paragraph form.

The cover letter is designed to showcase your interest in the company and your best attributes for the position. That doesn't mean it needs an itemized list of your every job and achievement. To be sure, if you won an exceptional award or executed a stunning project, then make sure to highlight it in the letter. You should also discuss previous work that relates specifically to skills and experiences the hiring manager is looking for. But as a general rule of thumb, if it doesn't jump off the page, leave it out.

5. Address your cover letter directly to the hiring manager or recruiter.

Nothing says "I don't care about your company" like an opening of "To Whom It May Concern." That may have been OK before the advent of modern technology, but today it generally takes as little as a Google search or a phone call to figure out the name of the hiring manager. Addressing your letter to the correct person (and spelling their name correctly!) will automatically ingratiate you to the reader and show that you've spent some time researching the company and position.

6. Customize your tone for the company culture.

You might be applying to a Fortune 500 company, a startup, or something in the middle. No two companies are alike, not just in mission but also in culture. An important part of tailoring your cover letter to the company is striking the right tone, Schawbel says. If you know the place you're applying to has a casual vibe, then your letter can reflect that with pithy sentences and fun anecdotes that show an easygoing side of your personality. On the other hand, if the company seems to have a formal culture, it's probably best to use traditional phrases like "Dear Mr./Ms." and straightforward prose.

7. Proofread carefully, and consider getting a second pair of eyes.

How you absolutely don't want to be remembered is as the person that submitted the sloppy cover letter. So proof, proof, and proof again, or enlist a friend to look at your document with a fresh set of eyes. A typo, grammar mistake, misspelling, or other error can "leap off the page in a bad way," Salemi says, and is the easiest way to let a hiring manager knock your application straight from their desk to the trash bin. Don't give them the chance.

What are your most pressing workplace challenges or concerns? What questions do you have on how to get ahead in your career today? Email the Business Insider Careers team at careers@businessinsider.com, and we'll find the answers.

So… you’ve created a knockout resume, and you’re ready to wow employers by sending it directly to them. Don’t forget to send it under cover—a powerful cover letter, that is.

While a great resume can open doors, a compelling cover letter can be an equal (if not MORE) important part of your pitch for employment.

In fact, some surveys of HR professionals and recruiters have suggested the cover letter—instead of the resume—is what really gets read!

That’s right! The interviewing decision may actually rest on how well-written and concise your letter appears… and the irony is you may never find out whether it was the resume OR the cover letter that swayed an employer.

Even if cover letter writing isn’t your style, don’t panic! Read on for five strategies that can help even a novice letter writer create a memorable introduction to capture an employer’s attention:

1. Ensure Your Letter Matches Your Resume In Presentation And Style

Start by copying the name and address header information from your resume to a blank document. Next, check the margins on each document to ensure they match.

Be sure to use the same font as your resume, in order to give your application a professional “package” look. In addition, don’t suddenly switch fonts or font sizes in the midst of the letter itself.

With this type of presentation, hiring authorities can match your resume to the letter-plus, doing so helps to put your best professional foot forward.

2. Find Out The Hiring Manager’s Name Before Sending Your Application

Skip, “Dear Sir” by finding out exactly who is behind the open position. This is where your Internet research skills will come in very handy.

Sites such as LinkedIn or Zoominfo.com are great resources for job hunters who want to find company insiders.

In addition, you might be able to call the company and ask who the hiring manager is for the open position, or use your network to learn the names of managers at the company.

If you can’t find out the name, “Dear Hiring Manager” is most appropriate. Skip, “To Whom it May Concern”—or it won’t concern anyone!

3. Keep In Mind The Purpose Of The Letter Is To Gain Attention

Your first paragraph should therefore skip mundane details and get right to the point. Aim for an opening sentence that states your main qualifications, plus your objective, all in one shot.

For example, a cover letter for a Sales Manager might begin with:

With a strong background closing contracts in excess of $1 million at Fortune 500 corporations, I am confident that I can exceed your expectations in the role of Sales Executive.

Conversely, an Operations Director might use the following:

As an operational executive focused on delivering the highest levels of quality, I have helped global organizations achieve their profit goals by leading large teams to achieve infrastructure improvement and maintain cost control. These qualifications have prompted my application to your company for the position of Operations Director.

4. Don’t Repeat Everything In Your Resume

Even though you’ve put a lot of effort into your resume, it’s still best to resist the temptation to repeat all that great information.

You’ll capture more interest by restating your main points, allowing the reader to see how you will succeed in the new job.

I recommend adding a bullet-point list of your relevant qualities and achievements, keeping it to a maximum of five critical points. Preface it with “Representative skills that make my background ideal for this position include…” to give the employer a quick snapshot of your fitness for the job.

Still stumped for ideas? Try to answer the classic “Why should we hire you?” question, and you’ll be able to state your case much more succinctly.

5. Limit The Number Of Sentences Beginning With “I”

Focusing on the job and the employer’s requirements are key strategies for a great introduction. One of the best ways to do this is to refrain from using first person references at the beginning of your sentences.

Why is this so important? Employers are hiring a solution to their business problems when they bring you on board, and this means focusing on their requirements is a key step.

Think about it this way: when you create a verbal picture of what you can achieve, it rarely starts with “I”—and structuring your thoughts this way can help reinforce your emphasis on the company’s needs.

The following example illustrate this point:

Given your needs for a proven sales performer open to new challenges in the medical device industry, we should talk further about my record of success in territory expansion.

In summary, don’t forget to create a strong cover letter as part of your job hunting strategy. You’ll find that a personal, yet powerful, introduction to your skills might be all you need to access more interviews.

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Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Laura Smith-ProulxLaura Smith-Proulx, Executive Director of An Expert Resume, is a resume industry leader, 13-time global TORI resume award winner, LinkedIn expert, author, personal brand strategist, and former recruiter with 20+ years of experience winning choice jobs for executives and rising leaders.