In the usual scenario, the resume is the first element of any job search. Considerable time and effort is taken to develop a solid resume, and once that is complete, most people move directly into the job search. It is only after a position is selected, that the last element, the cover letter, is quickly devised to respond to the job posting. In the "rush to get it done" mentality that surrounds this task, many candidates fail to give cover letters the attention they deserve. Cover letters are important not only for the obvious reason that they are your first contact with a prospective employer, but also because in an economy where there may be hundreds of applicants, bad cover letters can get your resume on the discard pile even before the recruiters see it.
Many consider cover letters to be the most overlooked aspect of a job search, simply because they are the last element of the job search process. It's difficult to write a good cover letter. Care must be taken to provide enough information to introduce your self and your background, without giving out so much detail that you confuse the reader or give the recruiter something that will allow them to eliminate you from selection.
Alternatively, saying too little makes it look as if the candidate is hiding something, another pitfall that should be avoided. We think the best cover letters contain the following elements: 1) Declare your intention, by indicating the position for which you are applying in the first line of the letter. This allows the clerical person who is doing the "first cut" on the resume pile the chance to easily know the job you are interested in. 2) A short paragraph that briefly explains why you are qualified. This information clearly and quickly indicates why you applied for the job in question.
Mention as many of the experience and background attributes from the ad itself as you can here, simply because these are the elements the prospective employer is seeking. 3) An additional brief paragraphy that expands on the "why I am qualified" theme, but mentions those attributes of your background that you want to display, that were not mentioned in the ad. In this way, you bring out those aspects of your experience of which may uniquely qualify you, separating you from the other applicants.
4) A closing line that either says your resume is attached (for e-mails), or your resume is included (in the envelope or with the FAX), for their review. With some practice, you can include the experience and background elements from the employers' ad, and those personal attributes you want to advertise, into simple template that will allow you to quickly respond to jobs as they appear. Take the time to develop a good cover letter, and the time spent will pay off when you get the job you deserve.
Robert Watson, author of Job Hunter's Handbook has been involved in business consulting and headhunting for most of his professional career. His new book covers the job search process, from resume writing and writing a cover letter to job interviewing tactics and more.