Cover letters let you brag

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Should I write a cover letter?

It is times like these that I heartily endorse the listen-to-your-parents philosophy. No doubt, they told you that if you’re going to do something, give it your all. When it comes to searching for a job, that means finding a way to distinguish yourself from the hordes of college and university graduates looking for work.

Remember, recruiters spend no more than 20 seconds per resume; even the best designed document may not grab their notice. That means that from concise job titles like “summer intern,” they can’t tell that you helped rescue the local savings and loan or single-handedly won a huge new corporate account — tales you can highlight in a cover letter.

So yes, absolutely, write one.

Convey a stronger message

Some candidates believe falsely that they needn’t write a cover letter with an electronic application, because software will screen the candidate. But technology isn’t always the final arbitrator in the early going. That cover letter might be the thing that brings you to a human being’s attention.

Good cover letters leave just the sort of positive, lasting impression that will get you to the interview round. Practically speaking, they allow candidates to underscore links between academic, extracurricular and work experiences, and the job’s requirements. In short, you get to brag in more detail.

A cover letter shows you’re not simply firing off resumes randomly hoping one will strike gold. “They go beyond the resume in providing qualitative information about you,” says Linda Peacock-Landrum, director of career services at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

Wendy Enelow, author of the book “Cover Letter Magic,” says: “The cover letter conveys a stronger message (than the resume alone) that says you’re dedicated to your job search and gives you a competitive distinction, which is always to your advantage.”

Check spelling and grammar

All this assumes that you’ve executed your cover letter as brilliantly as you have your resume. Need I say that a poorly crafted letter can undermine the good will you’ve created by writing one?

Phrasing should be crisp. Grammar and spelling should be perfect. You want four or five short paragraphs on one page. You want a clear layout with 10.5- to 12-point type size — depending on the font — roughly one-inch margins at each side, and a visually appealing amount of white space above and below the text.

Get a good start

Professional resume writers sometimes disagree about openings. Some writers say you should identify the job opening in the first paragraph. Others believe that you can simply mention it in the subject line of an e-mail and/or the last paragraph. Enelow argues that clients should summarize their biggest attribute in the first sentence of a cover letter. For example, a candidate for a retailer might begin, “Boosting sales is what I do best.”

The remainder is formulaic. In the next two paragraphs, tell people why you’re the best candidate and weave in relevant work experiences. You might also want to show that you know something specific about the employer.

Be proactive

If your resume is light on experience, consider using bullet points to expand on your experience in the few jobs that you’ve had. They lend the appearance of a fuller professional background. At the end, tell employers that you’re going to follow up by phone — and then do it, on time. Recruiters are more likely to favor a proactive candidate.

There is a rare instance when a cover letter isn’t essential: You won’t need one when you’re handing a recruiter a resume; such encounters generally mean you’ve already received an interview.

Los Angeles-based James Peter Rubin has written about employment and management issues for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.