You agonize over every word on your resume, spending hours making sure it’s perfect. And then, when it comes time to send out your carefully crafted masterpiece, you slap on a cover letter that actually undoes all your hard work.

Almost every job requires at least minimal communication skills. As you move up in the ranks, the ability to express yourself becomes even more important. The resume cover letter is the first indication to a prospective employer of whether you can talk the talk—and write and spell and generally make a good impression on people as well.

It’s human nature to believe that your technical skills are, and should be, enough to land you a job. But what if the job is the job—the position you’ve been working toward? In that situation, the cover letter can play a pivotal role. To ensure that the cover letter does its job, here are some good tips and advice when drafting that next letter.

The three things not to do
Let’s start with three things you must never do with a cover letter:

  • Don’t address the letter with “To Whom it May Concern,” “Dear Sir,” or any other generic salutation. Put some effort into finding out the name of the person who will read the letter.
  • Do not, on pain of death, start a cover letter with, “I saw your ad in the Times.” Duh! They don’t think you divined the information—they know full well where they advertised. You need to catch their attention immediately, and that’s vital real estate space on the page.
  • Don’t summarize your resume in the cover letter. Many people mistakenly believe that a cover letter is a place to condense a resume into four or five bullet points. That’s not what a cover letter is for. The next page they’ll see is your resume, and your resume shouldn’t be so long that it needs to be summarized, anyway.

So what should you include in your cover letter? Glad you asked. Let’s start with…

The salutation: What’s in a name?
First of all, be brief, professional, and use a colon (:) at the end of the greeting. “Dear Mr. Smith:” is correct; “Dear John,” unless you went to school together and meet for dinner weekly, is not. You must call the company to verify the person’s name (the recipient) and correct spelling and title. Nothing irritates people more than seeing their name misspelled.

And yes, I see you jumping up and down waving your hands frantically. “But I don’t know who I’m sending this letter to,” you protest. “It’s a blind ad.” Even so, you’re sending your resume somewhere—even if all you have to go on is a fax or a post office box. So enter whatever information you have into and see what you come up with. You might find the company. Then call the front desk and simply ask to whom your cover letter should be addressed.

If you absolutely, positively cannot find any company information that gives even the slightest hint of the recipient’s name, then use “Dear Hiring Manager.” It’s a tiny bit better than any of the other choices.

The first paragraph: Hook your reader
Leave the lame openings for the masses. Set yourself apart with something more powerful. You can open with a restatement of what the employer is looking for and then show how you match its needs—or you can pull out all the stops and plunge right into a description of your strengths. Check out the two examples below.

  • You’re looking for a software developer with five to seven years of VB experience. I’ve been immersed in VB for the past seven years.
  • I’m a senior VB developer with seven years of in-depth experience designing and developing three-tier application architecture.

The second example is an exceptionally strong opening sentence that you can easily tailor to stress the parts of your job that most closely match the employer’s needs. Follow with another sentence or two—at most—that stress skills the employer needs.

The second paragraph: Sharpen your focus
Here’s where you’ll name precisely the position you want. And don’t be wishy-washy about it. Dozens of letter writers “think they would be a really good fit for this position because…”—ugh!

Go for the gold: “The [whatever] position at [company name, or describe the company if you weren’t able to figure out the company name] excites me: I have the technical skills you need, and I’m ready to be challenged.” Doesn’t that sound more like a person who can get the job done?

You can make the second half of that sentence even more specific (and thus more effective) by plugging in even more specific skills that you have that make you a prime candidate. For example: “My strong front-end user interface skills mean I can create an intuitive system that your clients can begin using immediately.” Aim for about four sentences in this paragraph.

The final paragraph: The home stretch
The hard part is behind you—the last paragraph is easy to write. All you have to state is: “My resume is attached. I look forward to speaking with you and hearing more details about the position. You can reach me at….” You need to add your phone number and e-mail address at this point, even if they’re already at the top of the page.

Remember, a cover letter is the first thing a potential employer sees. And like the old commercial says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.