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You are applying for the perfect job, and you have every confidence that you’ve got your résumé optimized for the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSs). You have followed all the rules to beat the bots and have included those important keywords. But you are probably wondering about your cover letter and whether it also needs to be ATS-optimized.
The simple answer is Yes! Just as you worked hard to prepare an ATS-optimized résumé, you will also need an ATS-friendly cover letter to help ensure it will pass through the ATS screening filters and reach human eyes. When applying for work, you need to capitalize on every opportunity you can to send your application over the finish line and into the hiring manager’s hands.
In this article we introduce six strategies you can use to create an ATS-friendly cover letter. These include: understanding the cover letter, maximizing your chances, writing for clarity, matching keywords, choosing the right file format and file name, and structuring your cover letter.
Six Key ATS Strategies for Cover Letters
- Understanding the Cover Letter
A cover letter can be defined as ‘the perfect introduction.’ It is not a repeat of your résumé and must be carefully crafted. It is really the first opportunity for a recruiter to be further persuaded to give you a chance at an interview.
Most recruiters prefer a cover letter even when the job posting does not require one. In fact, according to Jobscan1, 83% of HR professionals say they do assess cover letters as part of their hiring decision. Essentially, your cover letter is a valuable personal marketing tool that complements your résumé and increases your chances of being shortlisted for an interview.
You will need to complete some research on the company you are applying to and carefully review the job posting for those key skills, educational preferences, and experience that are the highest on their priority list.
The idea of the cover letter is to accompany the résumé, but not to repeat the exact same information. While a résumé is a straightforward document with dates and job titles, a cover letter is really more of a professional introduction that can showcase your transferable skills and your accomplishments in greater detail. In this way, your cover letter can create the perfect narrative to demonstrate how you are the best fit for the role.
Tip: Even if the job ad does not ask for a cover letter, include one, and ensure it is ATS-friendly.
- Maximizing Your Chances
Your cover letter is your personal marketing platform to get the job of your dreams! By creating a well-written, optimized, ATS-friendly cover letter, you are maximizing your chances—whether the employer is using an ATS filtering system or not.
When writing a cover letter, the same rules you followed with your résumé apply, but you must also ensure your letter is well written, organized with your contact information, and free of spelling errors. You should also tailor your cover letter to each job posting.
Simply stated, from the employer’s perspective your cover letter needs to answer the following six questions:
- Where did you see the job posting or hear about the job?
- What are your skills and experience?(This is not a repeat of your résumé.)
- Why are you a good fit for our workplace culture?(Evaluate and understand the type of role, examine wording in the job ad for clues, and research the employer’s website and social media postings to determine what their attitudes, beliefs, and values are.)
- What is your reason for applying for this job?(Be sure to demonstrate a strong interest in applying for the position!)
- What do you know about our company?(Do your research and be sure to review their mission statement.)
- What specific value will you bring to our company?(Back up your statement with evidence. The more you can quantify your accomplishments, the better.)
Notice from the list above that your cover letter will need to be specifically tailored to each job you apply for. Your goal is to give the person in charge of hiring a deeper insight into your suitability for the role. This is your chance to show how you are a good match and the reasons why they should hire you.
Because the ATS tracks the required skills, education, and work experience for the specific job description, it will search your cover letter for targeted keywords. This means, if you are applying for a job that is truly not a good fit, then you will be eliminated immediately and your efforts will be wasted.
When you add an optimized cover letter to your optimized résumé, you have much greater odds of passing through the ATS filters and reaching the next level closer to your next job interview, and your new job!
Tip: Whether you are creating your résumé or accompanying cover letter, it is important to focus only on those job opportunities that are a good fit with your skills and experience in order to maximize your chance of being shortlisted for an interview.
- Writing for Clarity
The job of the ATS bots is to rate your letter on how well it matches the job description. It does this by scanning all job applications against the specific skills and important keywords in its database for a particular job application.
The clarity of a straightforward, readable format is an advantage when your cover letter moves forward to the human resources staff or a hiring manager. Even with an ATS, hiring managers still contend with large numbers of applicants, so you’ll want to make sure you give this your very best effort.
Use a clean font such as Calibri, Helvetica, Georgia, or Times New Roman. Compared to the more elaborate fonts, these are the best choices for passing the ATS filters. Be sure to avoid special characters that can be misread by the ATSs, such as a percentage sign, exclamation mark, or equal sign. Oftentimes, applicants will include a URL link to their LinkedIn profile or to their online work portfolio. If you do include any hyperlinks in your cover letter, be sure to type out the URLs in full (e.g., https://www.linkedin.com/in/mynamehere).
Spacing is important, too! Do not include any extra spaces, especially when you are matching keywords, or the ATS may not recognize them. For example, if the keyword you are using is listed as ‘proofreading,’ you should not type ‘proof reading’ as two words in your cover letter.
Tip: The ATS bots won’t be inspired by an elaborately written cover letter. Keep your cover letter simple and clear with straightforward wording so the ATS can scan your key information easily.
- Matching Keywords
In creating your ATS-friendly cover letter, you will need to ensure that you are using the same keywords you have used in your ATS-friendly résumé. A cover letter, however, gives you a broader format to expand on the keywords and further demonstrate that you are the right candidate for the job.
When drafting your cover letter, be sure to read the job description carefully and note the qualifications, skills, and competencies the employer requires. These will include technical and hard skills such as Microsoft Office, market research, and proofreading. The employer may also be looking for a specific formal certification or degree.
Take the time to match the wording in your cover letter to the job description. Using the right keywords will boost searchability and help you pass the ATS filters.
To find potential keywords, begin by highlighting the requirements that match your qualifications and work experience. When preparing your cover letter content, use the exact wording that is in the job description. Take note of acronyms or abbreviations that are used in the job description, such as MS Office, CRM, or B2B, and mirror this format by using these acronyms within the content of your cover letter.
Next, list all of the relevant keywords that you can find in the job description. If you notice hard or soft skills that are repeated, this means they are ‘significant keywords.’ The ATSs will search specifically for these important keywords, so try to mimic these important keywords as many times in your cover letter as they are repeated in the job ad.
Finally, be aware that employers have a wide range of keywords at their disposal to use within any job ad they post. You will want to try to identify all the keywords an employer is listing, so it is very important to carefully scan the job ad. Consider the following list of keywords that could potentially be used in an administrative assistant job posting:
- Administrative assistance
- Customer service
- Data entry
- Transcribing minutes
- Attention to detail
- Problem solving
Tip: There are extra steps you can take to identify what the highest targeted keywords are for a role. Start by researching the industry, the company, and the occupation you are applying for, and take note of specific skills and competencies. Look for your areas of alignment to these competencies in your own unique background and work experience, and focus on these keywords in particular.
- Choosing the Right File Format and File Name
Be sure to read the job posting carefully and note the instructions for submitting your job application (i.e., your résumé and cover letter) online. The instructions may specify the required file format, and even how you should name the file. Most often, the preferred file format is either a PDF (.pdf) or Microsoft Word file (.docx). Always follow the specific instructions in the job posting when formatting your documents for your job application.
Most often, you will be asked to send a PDF of your cover letter. PDF has become the standard file format for document sharing and can help you appear more professional to potential employers.
However, if you notice a job posting that does not specify which file format to use, the best option is to send your documents as Microsoft Word files. Some ATSs may be unable to read PDF documents, so by sending your document as MS Word, you will help reduce the chances of this becoming a hurdle in getting your application past the finish line.
It is also important to name your cover letter with a searchable name. If your cover letter will be sent electronically to a hiring manager or filed for their retrieval, including your first and last name in the file name will help ensure your document does not get lost among the many others under review. The point here is to ensure that any hiring manager will be able to easily locate and identify your document when they want to take a closer read and see what you have to offer.
Some simple rules of thumb apply with file naming. First, as mentioned, be sure to use both your first and last name in your file name. Second, include the words ‘cover letter’ when naming your file. What is really important is that you don’t submit a cover letter with just title ‘cover letter’ for your file name, because your letter can end up getting lost among the many other ‘anonymous letters’ submitted by other applicants.
Tip: To keep better track of the job applications you submit, you may also want to include a date in the file name of your cover letter. This also helps remind the employer that you applied for a job by their posted deadline. Here is an example: sam-brown-cover-letter-june-12-2022.pdf. Another option is to include the job position or employer in your file name.
- Structuring Your Cover Letter
Creating a professional cover letter can be quite challenging. Here is an overview to help you best approach drafting your cover letter.
Your Contact Details: A cover letter is a professional document and needs to be formatted as such. Your full name, address, phone number, and email address are all vital pieces of information and should be included in your cover letter.
Date: Also include a date in your letter that matches the day you expect to be submitting your job application.
Employer Details: Sometimes called an inside address, any professional cover letter should include the business name and full business address (if known) in a block of text after the date of your letter. Include the name of the contact person (if available).
Salutation: Search for the name of the hiring manager in the job posting. If it is not included, you may be able to find an HR manager on the company’s website. Otherwise, just address your letter to ‘Dear Hiring Manager:’ or ‘Dear HR Manager:’
Opening: Keep the first paragraph short with approximately three or four sentences. First, identify your area of expertise for the position you’re applying for, and state where you saw the job posting. Second, explain what inspired you or motivated you to apply to this company. End this paragraph with a closing statement that is positive and shows your enthusiasm for the position you are applying for. Be brief, but try and highlight how you align with the role or the company itself.
Here, you could mention your strong passion for your profession or a specific skill set as it pertains to the role. Steer away from simply mentioning that you “will be an asset to their company” or “how getting this job will be beneficial for you.”
Body: The next two paragraphs will reveal what you know about the company and expand on your reason(s) for applying for the job. You should also illustrate how you fit into the workplace culture. One way to demonstrate fit is to show your alignment with the company’s mission statement, goals, and values. This is the area of your letter where you have the perfect opportunity to illustrate the value you will bring to your role by including quantifiable (measurable) results. Give specific examples from past jobs, school experiences, or volunteer roles showing how you are a good match for what the employer is seeking in a new employee.
Closing: This is a short paragraph that confirms your interest, allows you to include any links to your online portfolio, and repeat the best contact information to reach you such as your cell phone number. Use a professional sign off such as ‘Sincerely,’ ‘Yours sincerely,’ ‘Best/Kind/Warm regards,’ or ‘Respectfully,’ after which you should include your full name on a separate line. If you have scanned in your actual signature as an image, you may also place your signature in the space between your sign off and your full name. Steer away from typing in your name and mimicking a signature by stylizing your name with a calligraphic font. This can undermine your efforts, and you are best to go without a signature if you do not have one scanned in.
Tip: Remember, your ultimate task is to clearly show through specific examples or scenarios just how you will be a benefit to this employer. You should aim to use this technique throughout the body of your cover letter, where appropriate. Authentically and professionally showcase how you’re a good fit for the role, while still allowing your personality to shine through!
Summing it up
When you see an ad for the job of your dreams, you will want to take advantage of every possible opportunity to be selected for an interview. In order to set yourself apart from others, you will need to utilize all the latest tools and strategies available. A well-written, ATS-friendly cover letter will maximize your chances of getting called for an interview.
It takes extra time to write a good cover letter and ensure it is also ATS-friendly. However, the time you dedicate to this task will be well worth it if you end up with a job that you love and brings you a greater overall sense of contentment in your life. Don’t forget to use this opportunity to differentiate yourself from other candidates, rather than just trying to beat the bots!
And remember, if you need guidance with exploring your career options, consider reaching out to a career or business coach, a career services organization in your local community, or our online career assistance and skills training programs that can help you identify and work toward your employment or self-employment goals.
Make A Change Canada provides online supportive programs for individuals facing barriers to employment from all across Canada.
- Online Career Assistance for Persons with Disabilities:
If you self-identify as living with a disability, you could be eligible for services.
Visit anycareer.ca for more information.
- Online Skills Training:
Make A Change Canada offers business coaching, employment and job search assistance, and technology skills training.
- Technology Skills Training:
The online Certificate in Applied Web Development and Design Programs are suitable for those who wish to gain valuable IT skills for employment or self-employment. Visit studyanywhere.ca for more information.
- One-on-one Support:
When you join Make A Change Canada programs, you are assigned a business advisor or employment specialist for one-on-one assistance and ongoing support with achieving your career goals.
- Employment and Self-employment Assistance:
Make A Change Canada’s anycareer.ca website gives those who self-identify as living with a disability the opportunity to receive employment and self-employment assistance from the comfort and convenience of home. Register online to gain access to valuable resources and your own personal advisor.