A good cover letter can make you stand out from a pack of equally qualified candidates; it can be the difference between "hired" and the bottom of the pile. It also, by its very nature, allows for more creative breathing room than does your resume -- so take it! This is the place to stand out, and this is how:
1. Name Drop
If you've been recommended by someone at the company, or even a mutual acquaintance outside the company, this is the time to spill it. Many experts even recommend leading with this connection. And if you don't immediately have a name to drop, do some research on LinkedIn and see if you know someone in common with the hiring manager: even a quick "we have a mutual friend in X" can go a long way to the reader on the other side.
2. A Clear Introduction
If you opt not to mention your acquaintance in your intro, make sure that your opening few lines are exciting, and highlight clearly the position you're applying for.
3. Don't Repeat Your Resume
This is the time to tell your story in a way that can't just be relayed by a chronological list of your previous jobs -- let your resume take care of that. Instead, focus on revealing yourself by writing about how some of the experiences and skills learned at those jobs have prepared you for the one to which you're applying.
4. Embrace the White Space
This is a time to get creative and be grabby; it isn't a time to wax on. The best cover letters leave plenty of white space by keeping things short: three paragraphs should be enough. Skip the exposition and get right into the meat.
5. A Full Body
The middle section of your cover letter is where real estate is at its highest premium: you need to convey a lot of info in a very small space (think a single paragraph). Your body must include:
- why you're interested in the company and specific position
- why your specific experience (academic, career and life) has prepared you for this specific position
- any relevant achievements and an explanation as to why they demonstrate the skills that this position requires
6. Keep Superlative Adjectives to a Minimum
Avoid saying you'd be a "perfect" member of the team or using similarly superlative language. It betrays hubris and makes the rest of your letter and application read as less trustworthy.
7. Mimic the Employer's Language
Research your prospective employer's website for particularly relevant buzzwords or phrases, then plug these into your cover letter. Employers -- and humans, generally -- respond positively to what social scientists call "mirroring" and will either a) appreciate that you've done your homework or b) subconsciously think well of you for using the same language they do.
8. Write a One-Paragraph Story
Ph.D. and author of Tell Me About Yourself: Storytelling to Get Jobs and Propel Your Career Katharine Hansen recommends that you "become instantly memorable by writing at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful story." This story can detail past projects or accomplishments, or relay an interest or passion, but the real goal is to use the power of narrative to create an emotional connection with the reader.
9. Close With a Request to Interview
As with many productive correspondences, it's important to conclude with a clear ask. In this case, you should request for a personal interview and make sure to phrase it in a way that will encourage a response, namely, as a direct question. "I'd love to interview" is easier for a recruiter to ignore than "Would you be able to interview with me next week?"
10. Send in the Correct File Format
Here's a surefire way to make sure your cover letter stands out in a negative way: send it in a different file format than requested. This not only shows you can’t follow directions; it may make it impossible for the employer to open it. Some employers don’t have Microsoft Word, so if they don’t specify, consider sending it in .PDF format as well.