According to nearly every source of career advice (excepting a few contrarians), sending a well-composed cover letter is key to an effective job search. But that's like saying a good script is key to a good movie: true, but not exactly helpful as it leaves unanswered the question of how to actually write one. For many job seekers with less than decades of experience writing cover letters, it's a struggle to avoid sounding like you're just restating your resume, while touting your skills aggressively without undermining your credibility with too much trumpeting is a difficult balance to strike.
In response to the standard "how do I make my resume stand out" question, a Fast Company staffer offers some great advice for confused cover letter authors. The post starts off with some fairly uninspired resume tips -- tailor it to the employer, make it keyword heavy to ease scanning, etc. -- but when the writer gets to the cover letter things get more interesting (the emphasis below is mine):
The cover letter is the hero of our story. It's the place where you can make yourself memorable. Ideas stick because they are full of concrete details, emotion, surprises, etc. All of these traits are impossible to deliver in the bulleted resume format, where you'll find yourself unwittingly writing captions for Dilbert cartoons: "Managed 17% increased in administrative responsiveness while actionalizing key strategic initiatives."
Make it your goal, in the cover letter, to do two things: (1) Give headlines; and (2) Defend the headlines with stories. For instance, if you're applying for a job in retail consulting, a headline might be: I'm the right guy because I have experience mining data to find useful insights. But don't stop there. Support the claim by telling a story from one of your past clients.There are two things I love about this advice. First, it's useful. Holding the idea of headlines supported by stories in your mind is bound to guide and sharpen your writing process and keep you from drifting into irrelevant abstractions. By keeping things focused on real accomplishment, you're likely to avoid sounding like a gassy self-promoter.
Second, it acknowledges that business writing is not an alien world that exists apart from other types of writing. Writing well for work actually relies on much the same techniques that make popular writing sing -- the apt detail, the twist ending, that one little detail that gives you credibility.