While many folks get a knot in their stomach at the thought of writing their own resume, even more job hunters, I’ve found, experience heartburn trying to unlock the secrets behind writing an effective cover letter.

Simply put, cover letters are a FAR more nebulous writing exercise than the resume document, in most cases, since with resumes you’ve at least got a rough sense of the type of content (e.g. work history, education, key qualifications, etc.) that you’re supposed to include.  With cover letters, however, almost anything goes.  You can fill that blank page with anything from a poem to an aggressive sales pitch to a “your needs/my skills” matrix to a bulleted list of your top 10 qualifications for a given job.  It’s this dizzying range of options that often leads people to experience severe writer’s block — or to spend hours of time trying to cobble together an appropriate letter for a single published opportunity.

From my point of view, this is not a very productive use of time for the average job seeker.  So let’s put a stop to it.  For starters, in a blog article I published earlier this year, available here, I expressed my belief (shared with most career coaches and hiring managers) that the cover letter as we used to know it is pretty much extinct.  Few employers today seem to have any interest in reading a traditional one- or two-page letter, formatted in MS Word and e-mailed along as a separate attachment.  They just don’t have time to deal with them — and have found that most letters never say anything interesting, anyway.  They contain a bunch of overly-polite, stilted “filler” language and then go on to regurgitate the exact same material the candidate has already included on their resume.

So as a more modern alternative, I now recommend that my clients forego the traditional cover letter submission entirely (unless instructed otherwise) and instead forward their resume to employers along with an e-mail cover note consisting of three short paragraphs — devoid of any fancy formatting or attachments to slow things down.  Here’s the formula that this note should be built around:

Paragraph #1: What job are you applying for?
Paragraph #2: What’s one good reason you should be considered?
Paragraph #3: What next steps would you like to see happen?

If it helps, think of this formula using a sandwich metaphor.  The first and last paragraphs are simply thin slices of bread that hold in the real “meat” of the sandwich, which is the one attention-getting thing you have to say for yourself, relative to the job opportunity at hand.  And in terms of this meaty filling, there are generally three topics that do the trick.  You can either 1) Say something unique/distinctive/memorable about WHY you’re interested in the particular job at hand; 2) Say something unique/distinctive/memorable about WHY you’re interested in working for the organization in question; or 3) Say something unique/distinctive/memorable about a qualification you possess that SETS YOU APART or ADDS VALUE beyond what your competitors can likely offer.

I realize this last part is easier to say than to do, but for a cover letter to have any impact whatsoever, it’s critical that it show originality and reflect some serious thought on your part as a candidate.  Me-too letters are doomed for the round file and aren’t really worth sending, since they add zero marketability to the equation.  So take whatever time I might have saved you by absolving you of the need to write a long, flowery formatted letter — and devote this time, instead, to researching the job description and the company carefully in order to come up with that one brilliant insight you can use to capture the employer’s imagination.

If you put some serious thought into it (the essential ingredient of all good writing) and keep your message brief, you maybe, just maybe, might tip the scales in your favor — and won’t have to rely quite so heavily on the pass/fail qualifications of your resume to carry the day!