One of the most frequent questions I get as an HR Generalist and former headhunter is “Do hiring managers and HR people really read cover letters?”

I’ll be honest with you. The answer is ‘sometimes.’ And when they do read cover letters, they’re usually doing it for one of three reasons:

  1. It’s a values-driven organization and they want to know why you’re applying and more importantly what makes you a good fit within the culture.
  2. They want to assess your ability to convey your thoughts via written word. The job description may not say strong writing skills are required, but they don’t want to email back and forth with a dodo that doesn’t understand red squigglies and structure.
  3. They’re on the fence about your application and they’re looking to your cover letter to determine if they give you the nod or the head shake of despair.

Regardless of why they’re looking at your cover letter, you don’t want to take shortcuts in the application process. Let me ask you a couple questions that’ll put you in the shoes and chair of the person that’s deciding if you get your foot in the door:

How would you feel if someone handed you a stack of 200 applications and told you to go through them and look for the people that not only meet the requirements, but also set themselves apart from the rest? How would you feel if you got to application 153 and realized someone had taken a generic template and plopped in the relevant information? You took the time to review their application and they couldn’t even take the time to be original. Yeah…straight into the trash can.

You never know where your application is going to fall in the batch, or how many people submitted resumes that look just like yours. You think you’re one in a million, but your profile is one of a hundred. How you differentiate yourself is the difference between having healthcare benefits and living the struggle in the flesh.

Here are a few simple things you can do to increase your likelihood of professional happiness:

Thank Them Early

Most people start their cover letters stating where they found the position. That’s cool, but so did the other 152. You should always assume that your resume was toward the end of the pile. Open your cover letter by thanking whomever it may concern for taking the time to review your credentials. It’s a small change, but does wonders in terms of setting the tone. Who isn’t perked up by appreciation, gratitude, and humility other than the Grinch, Satan, or a curmudgeon?

Tell Them You’re Excited and Why You’re Looking

The second sentence should say something to the effect of “I was excited to come across the X position on Y site. I’m currently in the process of seeking a new opportunity (state why you’re looking and spin it positive) and this role is exactly the type of position I’m looking for.

Convey What Made You Excited About the Position

You follow up the last point with something like “What really jumps out to me about this opportunity is X.”

It’s here that you highlight specifically what it was about the job description that got you excited. It could be usage of certain skills you have, or something within the values or organizational history that resonates with you on a deeper level. You don’t have to bare your soul, but you need to tell them who you are.

When you clicked on that posting and decided to apply, there was something that got you excited or made you want to submit your application. The cover letter is the perfect opportunity to do that. You can repeat this process with one or two in-depth examples and it should suffice.

Close It Out Traditionally, But With a Twist

After you’ve conveyed why you’re excited about the role, you can close it out with “Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions regarding my application. I’m happy to discuss my accomplishments as well as the challenges I’ve faced over the last few years.”

Most folks just say don’t hesitate to contact, drop their number, and throw in the signature. With the approach I suggested above, you’re letting them know that you’re confident in what you’ve accomplished and ready to talk about areas where you may have failed or run into obstacles. It takes the “salesy” tone out of your cover letter and lets them know you have nothing to hide.

If you follow these four steps, you’re putting yourself in a much better position with the person that’s initially determining if your dreams become reality. Regardless of what you think and what people tell you, don’t slack on the cover letter. At the very least, it’s a great feeling to know that you’re always providing the best representation of yourself possible. Happy hunting!

Rich Jones is a Pathfinder for Professionals with a knack for helping the wayward determine the next steps of their careers. He’s also a certified professional in Human Resources with for-profit and non-profit recruiting experience. Check Rich out on his career blog. I Am Rich Jones.