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The Cover Letter: The Ultimate Snapshot

In both your personal and business life, you only get one chance to make a first impression. We’ve all heard that before, right? So, why do so many job seekers screw up something so important?

The cover letter is a chance to make a positive impression on a potential employer. Unlike a face-to-face meeting, where your nervousness or bad luck can turn a first impression into a disaster, a cover letter is a first impression you get to have complete control over. You decide exactly what you will say, without any time pressure or having to come up with something spontaneously, and you also get to “stage” your letter.

You control what it looks like, what it sounds like, and how you come across.

The key element to remember is, while you might easily spend two hours agonizing over every detail of your cover letter, the first person reading it is not going to invest even a small fraction of that time. Your letter will be scanned quickly the first time. Only if your resume or application jumps to the “short list” is it likely anyone will really take the time to read your letter word-for-word.

In China, the resume is of more value to an employer than a cover letter. But if you’re non-Chinese looking to do an internship in China, human resources folk – many of whom speak and understand English – are going to want to see an introduction of who you are and what you can bring to the table.

So, you have a two-fold challenge: you must write a well-crafted cover letter that comes across well on a deep reading, and you must write a letter that favorably grabs the attention of the casual reader who is simply scanning.

Wherever you are in the world, you’ll send your cover letter the first time around by email. But if you show up to a job fair, you’ll want to have paper copies and properly-sized envelops on hand.

There are plenty of smaller companies that still welcome (some preferring) printed materials. In fact, go to a job fair and you’ll find paper resumes nervously gripped by anxious job seekers.

It’s worth investing a few dollars in the proper grade of paper and the right kind of matching envelope – you don’t need to spend a fortune, but you do need to print your letter on something other than the recycled dot-matrix paper you’ve been storing in the attic since 1984.

If you don’t have a quality printer in your home office, then use the laser printers at a your local business center – even the library often has printers available for public use.

But let’s look beyond old-school paper submissions.

What about impressions resulting from job inquiries sent by e-mail?

When applying for employment, do your email attachments open properly? Do your docs look crisp on screen? In making your first impression via the cover letter, you need to ensure the letter appears professional (whether sent via e-mail, fax, or mail), that the content is relevant and appropriate, and that your letter adds value to your application or resume. A phoned-in, cookie-cutter cover letter is better than no letter at all, sure, but a good letter can step your candidacy up a notch.

Be sure to send the email to yourself first to check if everything opens properly and if the cover letter is properly formatted.

Take every opportunity to improve your cover letter, so it opens a few more doors.
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