One of the most common questions asked by job seekers is, “How important is a cover letter?” Unfortunately, there’s no universal answer. Recruiters are deeply divided on the issue. Some say the cover letter is absolutely vital while others insist they never read them at all. There’s only one conclusion to be drawn from the discord: resume cover letters are important to some recruiters, so treat them like they’re important to everyone.

Based on my years of experience as an executive search consultant, I advise job seekers to think about resume cover letters like first impressions. Whether the recruiter reads every word or only takes a fleeting glance, it is the first thing he or she will see before diving into your resume. Don’t let it be a lost opportunity.

When writing a cover letter, stick to these simple guidelines for maximum impact:

Be Compelling. In my experience, if you don’t capture the attention of a reader in the first two sentences of your cover letter, it’s unlikely that he or she will read on. Open with a punchy first sentence, and give them a reason to continue. Don’t be afraid to write a cover letter with personality.

Be Brief. Be mindful of the reader’s limited time. With piles of applicants to go through, it’s no wonder that long cover letters often get ignored entirely. Stick to three paragraphs that get right to the point. The basic structure should always be an attention-getting introduction, a middle paragraph that sells you, and a short, final paragraph that includes a call to action.

Personalize. Show that you’ve done your homework and tailor your cover letter to the company and position. Tell the reader why you want to work for the company and what makes you uniquely suited for the role. If you have a personal connection, like a shared alma mater or a recent interaction at a conference, be sure to mention that in your first paragraph. Don’t use the shortcut of a generic cover letter with a single sentence changed for each application. Personalization is a time consuming exercise, but it will immediately set you apart from the pack.

Go beyond the resume. The cover letter is your place to say what your resume can’t. You can highlight a particular area of expertise, give context to your job history, or explain how unique elements of your background qualify you for the position. Draw the connection between your resume and the job you seek.

Proof read. Typos are the ultimate pet peeve for recruiters, and there’s simply no excuse. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to review your letter. Print it out. Look at every word. Sloppy errors can absolutely get you pushed to the bottom of the pile.

While the debate may go on about the importance of a resume cover letter, always err on the side of professionalism. Follow these cover letter guidelines, and give your resume the edge it needs to stand out from the crowd.

Has a cover letter ever helped or hurt you during a job search? What advice can you share about creating an awesome cover letter?