April 10, 2013 at 4:03 PM ET
Writing cover letters can be just as excruciating as helping a high schooler with algebra homework. It's hard to find the right formula.
Enter the experts, who have the answers for the most common questions about crafting a cover letter, like how long it should be and who to address it to. And, if a hiring manager will actually read it.
That depends on your audience. “When submitting a resume to large companies, don't waste a whole lot of time on a cover letter—they're not read that often,” says Gyutae Park, head of human resources at Money Crashers, a site dedicated to personal finance. “Smaller companies, however, may greatly appreciate a personalized, insightful cover letter.”
So here's how to write one:
Step 1: Match your skill to the job description
Not acknowledging what the role requires will guarantee your resume gets passed over. Experts advise correlating a few of the job's responsibilities to your skill set. “Know what's important to the company so when you talk about yourself, you can talk about your strengths that are relevant to [the role],” says Jaime Petkanics, job search advisor and founder of The Prepary.
Perhaps most important is not to let the job responsibilities intimidate you, especially if you're aiming for a next step up in your career. “I often see evidence that showed that in doing their resumes, men were much quicker to say, 'Speaks fluent French,' when he took two years of it in high school, whereas a woman who speaks fluent French will play it down,” says Kate White, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and author of I Shouldn't Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know. “In life and often in applying for jobs, guys use the phrase 'It's a bit of stretch, but I can do it,' and we have to start to think that way, too. We tend to think, 'I'm going to be in over my head,' but you've got to think 'stretch.'”
And with that in mind, we move on to step No. 2:
Step 2: Take the opportunity to brag
Bragging isn't something that comes easily to many women, but you need to get good at it—at least in writing that cover letter.
One easy way to know what you're good at is to enlist the advice of a mentor. “You might even say, 'This job sounds great, but I've got to think about whether it's right for me or not—what do you think?'” advises White. “That's often where you realize the perception of you by people who know you as much greater and of higher value [asset] than your own perception at the moment.” Take notes on your mentor's response, and work the best bits into your cover letter.
Step 3: Don't stress over the salutation
If you don't have the name of the job representative, you may find yourself fretting about whether to use “Dear Hiring Manager" versus “To Whom It May Concern.” Don't. It is a waste of time.
“I don't think it matters that much,” says Petkanics. “It's more about the content that's in the cover letter versus who you're addressing it to. If you don't know who to address the cover letter to, either of those options are fine.”
Or, consider using the results of a survey by Saddleback University as a guideline, Park says. The Mission Viejo, Calif.-based community college polled companies in over 40 industries about their preferred cover letter salutation when a name was unavailable, and 40 percent selected “Dear Hiring Manager” as the first choice, followed by “To Whom It May Concern” at 27 percent, and “Dear Sir/Madam” at 17 percent.
Step 4: Keep it brief
In the same survey by Saddleback College, employers said shorter is better, with nearly 70 percent wanting to see a cover letter that's no more than half a page.
Step 5: Add a little personality
You've established that your experience qualifies you for the job. Now what? “If you know a little bit about the company and the environment, you can mirror your voice in the cover letter to be in line with that culture,” says Petkanics.
Still, this doesn't mean trying to be someone you're not. “At the end of the day, you have to be true to yourself, because you are who you are,” Petkanics says. “Ultimately, you should want to work at a company that likes what you're throwing out there and who you are naturally, not someone you're trying to be.”
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.