Forget boilerplate templates for cover letters: If you want to grab an IT manager’s attention, tailor the contents of your cover letter toward his or her specific needs. “Most cover letters aren’t very informative, so I usually don’t read them,” admitted Pete Overas, director of Enterprise Technical Support for Minneapolis-based software company Parametric Technology Corporation. What would change his mind? “A letter that conveys an understating of what we do and how an engineer could contribute would definitely catch my attention.” Managers say they aren’t looking for a lengthy document that takes hours to compile; just a brief synopsis of the value you offer to their organization. Here’s how to create a cover letter that catches a hiring manager’s eye.

Start Fast

Don’t use your cover letter to regurgitate the job description, advised an applications-development manager who works for the department of education in a major urban area (and who asked to stay anonymous because he's forbidden from speaking to the media). From the outset, convey an understanding of the company’s practices and services—just one or two sentences that synthesize your research, and convey that you have both a good sense of the organization and what it wants in a candidate. “Most of the letters seem generic like they’re part of a big batch,” Overas added. “It makes me wonder if the candidate even tried to understand what we do.”

Make Your Pitch

Now that you have the manager’s attention, explain how you intend to use your skills and experience to contribute to the success of the organization. In other words, offer some compelling reasons why you want to work for that organization and some ways that you can add value. Managers aren’t looking for a rehash of your résumé: Just three or four bullets that highlight your strongest selling points and why you’re a good fit for the job. IT managers say they’re usually willing to consider experience with comparable tools and systems in lieu of the listed requirements, but unless you point out the similarities, they may miss those all-important bullets when they scan a lengthy résumé. The second paragraph is the perfect place to describe a relevant project or transferable skills and technical experience; connect the dots between the manager’s needs and your skills, and you significantly increase your chances of landing an interview.

Speak to Your Audience

While you may want to mention your career goals and preferences, don’t get carried away: Make sure any personal information is presented in a way that benefits the hiring manager and the organization. For instance: “I’m interested in furthering your company’s position as an enabler of business process transformation by applying my three years of experience as a technical support engineer, my vast Java expertise, and my fervent desire to be a top performer and advance my career.” Most cover letters “fail to connect with their audience because they focus on the job seeker’s interests and goals,” Overas said. “Explaining how you can meet my needs not only keeps my attention—it shows that you have the right mindset, attitude and perspective.” A cover letter is supposed to be a sales pitch that results in an interview, so speak directly to the hiring manager and select examples that demonstrate your competency with the requisite skills. Remember, the more you understand your audience, the better you can express yourself.

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