How to Use Keywords in Your Cover Letters

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When you are writing a cover letter to accompany your resume as part of a job application, it's important to make sure that every word counts. Your cover letter should enhance the employer's appreciation of your qualifications so you can move from applicant to interviewee.

Types of Keywords

Keywords are a vital element of a persuasive cover letter capable of portraying a candidate as a highly qualified applicant for the job. These words fall into three general categories: skill words, results-oriented words, and words which show recognition for achievements.

Keywords work in a couple of different ways. First, the keywords you include in your resume and cover letter will be used to match your application with the skills required by the employer in the job advertisement. This matching process is often performed by automated applicant tracking systems (ATSs), programmed to identify specific keywords and to rank all resumes accordingly before they even reach the human eye of a hiring manager. If your cover letter and / or resume lack these keywords, they may be automatically cut from consideration at this stage of evaluation.

Secondly, keywords that are incorporated into a cover letter will show the hiring manager how and why you are highly qualified for the job, allowing them to rank you among your competition and, ideally, to offer one of their interview slots to you.

Skill Keywords

Job seekers should carefully analyze the skills required to excel in their target job and incorporate them into their cover letter. Those keywords should also be included in your resume. It will be more genuine if you paraphrase the skills mentioned in job ads as opposed to listing them verbatim. Skill words are most effective when connected to a specific role or project where the skills were crucial to success.

For example, instead of saying "Quantitative stock analysis is an asset which I would bring to your firm," you could say, "I utilized quantitative stock valuation techniques to create a portfolio for high net worth clients which beat the market for three consecutive years."

The skills keywords included in your cover letters (and your resume) will help your application get selected by the software employers use to select candidates for further consideration. They will also show the hiring manager, at first glance, what skills you have that are related to the job he or she is hiring for.

Examples of skill keywords include “wrote,” “analyzed,” “quantified,” “planned,” “programmed,” “designed,” “created,” “built,” “taught,” and “trained.”

Results-Oriented Keywords

All employers are looking for employees who will add value and generate positive results for their organization. That's why it's critical to integrate results-oriented language into your cover letters. Think about the bottom line for each job on your resume and how you might have made things better in your role.

Your cover letter should showcase your accomplishments, not just your skills or personal qualities. Providing these details will help to set your letter apart from those of other candidates who don’t highlight their professional achievements. Results-oriented words are most effective when coupled with some numbers which quantify your impact, as in "I reduced turnover amongst first-year hires by 20% by implementing a mentoring system." By using these types of keywords, you are clearing showing what you accomplished in your previous roles.

Examples of results-oriented keywords include: “increased,” “reduced,” “redesigned,” “upgraded,” “initiated,” “implemented,” “reformulated,” “generated,” and “produced.”

Recognition Keywords

Hiring managers will be more likely to believe that you will be an outstanding performer if it is clear that previous employers have viewed you in this way. One way to do this is to incorporate language which demonstrates that employers have recognized your contributions.

Ideally, recognition phrases will include the type of individual who noted your achievement and the basis for your recognition. For example, one might say "I was designated as the team leader for the budget reduction task force by my Division Vice President based on my previous record of accruing cost savings." Recognition keywords attest to how you have excelled in your previous jobs and how you have accomplished more than was required.

Examples of recognition related keywords include “honored,” “awarded,” “promoted,” “selected,” “lauded for,” “received a bonus for,” “recognized,” “chosen,” and “credited.”

For more examples of keywords you should consider incorporating into your cover letter, please have a look at “List of Resume and Cover Letter Keywords” and “Keywords Lists for Resumes, Cover Letters, and Job Applications.”