I regularly see job applicants miss out on one of the most effective ways to make their application stand out: the cover letter.
First, I'm continually surprised by how many people don't submit a cover letter at all, despite the fact that our ads and online job application instructions explicitly request them. I generally assume these applicants are just resume-bombing, applying to such a wide range of jobs that they can't possibly tailor their application to each job. I don't want these applicants; not only are they ignoring instructions in their very first contact with me, but I want applicants who are interested in this job, not a job.
Then there are the people who do submit a cover letter but who use it simply to summarize the resume that follows. With such limited initial contact, you're doing yourself a disservice if you squander a page just regurgitating the contents of the other pages.
A cover letter is where you make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what's in your resume. The first thing you want to do is tailor it to the specific job you're applying for and, if possible, the specific company. Yes, it takes a lot longer than sending out the same form letter over and over, but I can promise you, a well-written cover letter that's obviously individualized to my specific opening is going to open doors even when your resume alone might not have. These account for such a tiny fraction of applications -- maybe 3% at most -- that you'll stand out and immediately go to the top of my pile. And I'll give you an extra look, even if your resume isn't stellar.
So what does it mean to individualize the cover letter? Here are some ways to do it:
* Tell me why you want this particular job. What grabbed you about the job description or the company itself? Why would you prefer this job over others out there?
* If you're not a perfect match with the qualifications listed in the ad, acknowledge it and tell me why you'd do a good job anyway.
* Stay away from hyperbole. I hate cover letter statements like, "You won't find a candidate better qualified than me." It's usually not true when people say that, but more importantly, it reeks of ego. I don't want to feel like you're trying to sell me on you; from my side, the hiring process is about an honest assessment of whether you're a good match (because I don't want to have to fire you later). Hyperbole just gets in the way.
* If something makes you especially well-suited for the job aside from your resume, the cover letter is the place to mention it. Maybe the position requires an inordinate degree of meticulousness and you constantly get teased for being anal retentive about details. Great! Mention it or I won't know.
* If you know you’re overqualified but you don't mind, say so in your cover letter. Otherwise I'll figure that you don't understand the nature of the position and won’t want to waste my time or yours.