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by Hunter R. Slaton | February 01, 2010

Job seekers, take heed: The power of a strong cover letter is vastly underestimated. It conveys an all-important first impression, and many hiring managers will look no further at the résumé and supporting documents if not wowed by that letter.

"I like seeing cover letters, and I always request them," says Dawn Penfold, CMP, the New York City-based president of the Meeting Candidate Network, the Meeting Temp Job Network and Meetingjobs.com. "However, I'm only sent them about 80 percent of the time, and only 10 percent of those I do receive are good ones."

The modern era of online job application doubtless has helped erode the art of crafting an effective cover letter. And yet, perhaps for the very reason that it's become all too easy to hit the "send" button to propel one's résumé to its intended target, a well-written statement of who you are and why you're right for the job is more important than ever. As Penfold notes, those who neglect to include a letter often use the body of their e-mail simply to say, "Attached please find my résumé," and that, she adds, "doesn't tell me anything."

As for those planners who do send one, "the three biggest mistakes they make are being too wordy, not addressing the specifics of the position and not selling themselves properly," Penfold says.

With that in mind, M&C sought advice from career counselor Robin Ryan (robinryan.com), author of seven books -- including Winning Cover Letters and, her latest, Over 40 & You're Hired!

Choice words In this brutally competitive job market, you need to sell yourself in the opening sentence. Instead of starting with, "I saw your ad on Monster.com," try something like, "I have a proven track record with X years of meeting planning experience," or "X years of experience with large-scale events," whatever the case may be. You need to quickly and directly tell the hiring manager that you have the background to do the job.

One exception is if you have a referral. Get permission to use your contacts's name, and put it up top, e.g., "Ken Smith of the American Lung Association suggested I apply because..."

Put substance into your letter. Don't waste words with banal generalities such as "I'm writing to apply..." or "I think I'd be great at the job..." Directly address the needs listed in the job description. If the position calls for five years of experience, and you have it (or more), say so. If experience in catering, logistics and international travel are required and you have such expertise, spell that out.

An effective way to organize the look of your letter:
• Begin with an introductory paragraph.
• Use bullets to make key points.
• End with a summary paragraph.

One misconception is that you need to find something to say in the cover letter beyond what's conveyed in your résumé. Not true. Rather, pull out some highlights from your work experience, which you can expand upon in the letter. But don't go overboard: The cover letter should never be longer than one page.

End on a crisp note that invites further contact, e.g.: "I look forward to meeting with you to discuss the position."

Other tips • Make sure someone other than you (and who has strong writing skills) proofreads your letter, since your computer's spellcheck function won't necessarily catch every error or grammatical goof. Be certain there are no mistakes.
• Check your network of contacts for anyone associated with the target organization who could send along your application for you.
• Write a template letter that can then be adapted to address the specific needs or circumstances of a particular job, rather than write a completely new letter from scratch.
• Project your experience through the prism of the organization that needs to fill a position -- e.g., when applying to a nonprofit, you might want to talk about your involvement with, say, Habitat for Humanity.

Coming in March: "The Job Hunt, Part 3: Honing Your Interview Skills."