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Write a cover letter that zings!

You wouldn't go to a job interview half-dressed, so don't send your resume out half-dressed either. A well-written cover letter is the key to making a great first impression.

Your cover letter can unlock the door to a job interview, which will affect your career and your paycheck and, therefore, your life. That's a lot of pressure riding on one 8 by 11 sheet of paper.

"With a great resume and cover letter, you go out on a first-class public relations campaign," explains Anne McKinney, a career expert and senior editor at PREP Publishing in Fayetteville, N.C.

Writing a good cover letter is tough, and you're not alone in fretting over it. "Almost without exception, what people feel most uncomfortable and awkward about [in the job hunt] is the cover letter," says McKinney. "It's worth doing right because you are developing your reputation."

Tailoring that first impression
The cover letter connects that past experience listed on your resume to your potential future at a new job.

"Cover letters are exciting," McKinney enthuses. "A cover letter can really express your personality so much more than a resume can."

While you can emphasize and de-emphasize certain aspects of your history on a resume, it is nowhere near as flexible as a cover letter. Your letter can be tailored to the needs of the company to which you are applying, McKinney explains.

Most companies have someone screening the applicants, so make sure you say the right things to get your foot in the door. One way to make sure your resume is passed on to the boss is the use of words from the job ad or description. With a quick scan, that assistant will connect you with the job.

Go for the gusto!
Remember again, this is a potential employer's very first impression of you, so keep the sunshine turned up. Highlight your strengths, accomplishments and sparkling personality. Don't admit to shortcomings. Forget about apologizing for career gaps. Leave off the whining about what a creepy boss you have. You want the potential employer to be eager to meet you, not to pity you.

Also be positive in terms of specifics. Give (brief) examples:

  • Show that desired flair for efficiency by explaining that on your last job, you re-organized the department's supply-ordering process, saving them $1,000 over the course of a year.
  • Reveal your persuasive charm by telling them you met the highest quota of any vacuum cleaner salesman in the last 10 years.
  • Clarify your extensive computer training with a list of classes you've taken and programs you've worked with.

Don't stop now. A salesman would never make a pitch without trying to close the deal. And neither should you. Tell the reader -- your potential new employer -- what you want them to do next: interview you. Of course, you have to do this politely and professionally with a little moxie without being pushy.

Next: "Here's a quick list of do's and don'ts"
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