CPA INSIDER

How to write cover letters that stand out

Technology has changed the screening process, but a well-written cover letter can still boost your chances.
By Teri Saylor

Résumés and cover letters traditionally fit together like hands in gloves, and seasoned job seekers are accustomed to starting their application process with both.

As hiring practices grow more automated, however, cover letters are becoming less relevant, said Larry Sheftel, vice president of human resources at Aprio, a CPA-led professional services firm based in Atlanta. His firm hires about 200 employees annually, and he estimates thousands of résumés pass through his firm's applicant tracking system each year.

"With the volume of job applications we receive, we don't have time to scour all the cover letters, and typically go straight to the résumé," he said.

But don't count cover letters out entirely, he warned. Most employers still require them alongside résumés, especially at smaller firms where a senior partner or manager is responsible for hiring and recruiting and may take a hands-on approach. A well-written cover letter can be the difference between winning or losing a job opportunity.

Here are five tips for getting the most from your cover letter.

Keep it brief. A three-paragraph cover letter is the ideal length, said Rita Keller, a CPA firm consultant based in Beavercreek, Ohio. "The hiring manager is really interested in your qualifications, and you want them to get to your résumé right away, so keep your cover letter relatively short," she said. She described the ideal elements of a powerful and concise letter. The first paragraph should be your introduction, stating the purpose for submitting your résumé and the job you are applying for. The second paragraph should include some details you have learned about the firm through your research and the reasons you are interested in working there, and the third paragraph should state why you think you are the most qualified for the job. It is also a good idea to include a call to action, such as requesting an interview.

Use keywords. Applicant tracking systems are search engines programmed to seek out specific keywords or phrases, and it is important that both your résumé and cover letter are optimized for this technology, Keller said. Even at firms that don't use automated systems, managers may skim résumés and cover letters looking for words specific to the job they are trying to fill. A good place to find keywords is in the description of the job you are seeking. "If you can pull some descriptive words from a job posting stating the type of candidate your targeted firm is seeking, you will be mirroring back exactly what they are looking for," Keller said.

Show you care about the firm. Tailor your cover letter with direct references to the firm to which you are applying, and be sure to use the firm's correct name, Sheftel said. Misspelling the name of the firm suggests sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail. "Make yourself stand out by showing you know something about the firm and point out key aspects of its website," Sheftel said. It's also a good idea to share how you found out about the firm and describe why you are interested in working there, he added. Sheftel also advised against using a generic salutation. "If you can address your cover letter to the actual hiring manager or recruiter, that carries a lot of weight," he said. Many firm websites have employee directories, and LinkedIn can be a good resource too, he added.

Follow rules of good writing. Use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar, Keller advised. "Accounting professionals focus on accuracy, and the worst thing you can do is submit a cover letter filled with mistakes," she said. Even if you are qualified for the job, a poorly written cover letter will be a negative. Call on a friend or colleague to proofread your document, use online services such as Grammarly and SpellCheck.net, or consult an online dictionary to help you construct sentences correctly.  

Treat your letter as a supporting document. Make sure your résumé is complete, and don't save important details for your cover letter, because hiring managers may not read it, said Sheftel. He added that Aprio's applicant tracking system scours résumés for specific details that show job applicants have the specific type of experience the firm needs. However, he added, there are times when a good cover letter makes a difference, such as instances when several candidates demonstrate an equal level of experience. "That's when a well-written, professional cover letter could be key to getting the job," Sheftel said.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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