The Misunderstood Role of Cover Letters
Match your experience to the Job‘s requirements
By Gary Kanter

Of all the marketing materials created by job seekers, none seems to be misunderstood as much as the cover letter.

For example, many managers and professionals erroneously believe that cover letters should merely rehash their resumes. They laboriously write paragraphs covering the same material included in their attached resumes. That’s the equivalent of two strikes at bat if neither document includes the information an employer is looking for.

Look at the cover letter instead as the filter through which you want the employer to read your resume. It should expand your candidacy by focusing on the experience, results, and skills necessary for a specific job. This may require elaborating on resume items in more detail or presenting relevant experience that might not have been included or highlighted.

If the letter is bright and exudes quality, it makes me want to look at a resume more carefully. Unfortunately, most are dull, sterile, impersonal and don’t make a very powerful impact.

The value of the cover letter is that you can tailor it to hit specific ‘hot buttons” for a particular position. With careful planning and execution, your cover letter will assure an employer that you understand the requirements of, are qualified for, and can succeed at a given job.

Don’t throw away your chance to make an inviting first impression by sending a general letter stating your availability and interest. Orient your letter toward obtaining that job, just that job and nothing but that job!

“A good cover letter makes a very important difference in how I view an applicant,” says Mike McManus, chairman of Interaction Inc., a Lynnwood, WA career development firm for disabled persons. “If the letter is bright and exudes quality, it makes me want to look at a resume more carefully. Unfortunately, most are dull, sterile, impersonal and don’t make a very powerful impact.”

Think It Through

Writing an individualized cover letter takes thought and preparation. For example, before you can assure an employer that you’re a perfect fit for a position, you must assure yourself. This requires determining how well your experience meets the job’s requirements.

Start by gathering as much information as possible about the available position. Try to obtain a job description or other specifications. If a job description isn’t available, talk with networking contacts and hiring authorities.  Review company documents or visit the library to research the profession and industry.

Next, write down the position’s duties and responsibilities. For each item, frame a brief explanation as to why you’re qualified. Include as many examples from your background as possible. From these, select the one or two examples that are most relevant to the job and company. Don’t worry if you discard dramatic accomplishments in favor of more routine examples that better fit the job’s requirements. What matters is that an employer thinks your background is a good match with an opening.

Strong candidates use cover letters to articulate their understanding of the jobs they’re applying for,” an HR manager told me, He looks for cover letters that show that an applicant has done some homework about the organization and its culture.

The value of the cover letter is that you can tailor it to hit specific ‘hot buttons’

The cover letter demonstrates why the person feels he or she is a good fit. If it’s convincing, the resume is more likely to be routed to department heads and an interview arranged, whether or not a vacancy exists. (emphasis added)

Most job descriptions are written with Superman or Wonder Woman in mind. They describe the mythical “ideal candidate” who, like the mythical “ideal mate,” is nearly impossible to find.

Few candidates, if any, have all the skills, experience and attributes employers are looking for.  Your mission in the cover letter (and later in the interview) is to express your particular strengths. Make your best pitch by emphasizing relevant experience. If you’ve included this information in your resume, direct attention to it through the cover letter, then elaborate. If you haven’t included it in your resume, mention it in your cover letter.

Remember, a resume is a general document that shouldn’t include every type of experience in your career. Granted, word-processors allow you to tailor a resume to a particular job or field, but this can be cumbersome and time consuming. It’s also unlikely that all the infor­mation pertinent to a job can be included in the resume, no matter how well you customize each version.

Take care when mentioning an experience “cold” in a cover letter. Note where it occurred and elaborate fully. For example, assume an employer is seeking a candidate with management experience and your most recent experience is non-managerial. Earlier in your career, however, you were a supervisor.

Your resume includes complete descriptions of your most recent jobs and responsibilities. Because of space limitations, your earlier experience, including your supervisory job, is listed on your resume under a “Previous Employment” section which includes only job titles, dates of employment, and employer information as follows:

PRIOR EXPERIENCE

SALES ENGINEER, Evergreen Engineering. Redmond, WA (1995-97)

ENGINEERING SALES REPRESENTATIVE, Hi-Tech Inc., Seattle, WA (1993-95)

ENGINEERING SUPERVISOR, Hi-Tech Inc., Seattle, WA (1990-93)

In this case, feel free to cite the experience, adding the detail on which you want the reader to focus:“During my nearly four years as engineering supervisor with Hi- Tech, I planned, assigned and directed the work of four engineers and three techni­cians. I maintained all hiring and firing authority, and provided regular performance reviews. I was noted bi my staff and superiors as a firm yet fair manager who was always available to his staff The unit consistently met its deadline and budget constraints, earning two performance commendations from senior management.”

This paragraph describes your pertinent experience without diluting or adding undo length to your resume.

If you’re a managerial candidate, your resume may state that you were previously responsible for all aspects of personnel management, including recruitment, terminations, training, discipline, performance reviews, promotions, transfers and so on.

However, this statement doesn’t adequately describe your qualifications, if, for example, you’re applying for a position with a company that has an aggressive affirmative action policy and actively recruits minority and other targeted employees. In that case, your cover letter should include descriptions of your successes in hiring, training and promoting minority employees.

Target Hiring Authorities

Cover letters sent to HR departments can get lost or forwarded to hiring authorities without enclosed resumes. Because your cover letter is designed to enhance your resume, try to increase the odds that a hiring manager receives them together. Mail your letter and attached resume directly to the hiring manager. Use paper clips to attach the two documents, mention in your letter that your resume is enclosed and make sure your name is on both documents.

Don’t be too concerned about matching the paper color and typeface of the cover letter to those of your resume. Unless you’ve printed the resume yourself, this can be expensive; quality bond paper used for resumes and typesetting is costly. It’s perfectly acceptable to prepare cover letters on standard white paper. Doing so, in fact, presents a more customized impression. To me, the “fill-in-the-blanks” or “one-size-fits-all” cover letter that certain resume services provide as part of a package is insulting, self-defeating, and destined for the trashcan.

A ‘one-size-fits-all’ letter is insulting, self-defeating and destined for the trash can

Look at the cover letter as a time machine linking your past (resume) with your future (new job). Your resume states what you’ve done; the cover letter states what you can do. It shows your potential, a major consideration in the hiring deci­sion. Match your cover letter to the job you’re pursuing, and instead of rehashing your resume, expand on it. Take the reader from the past to the future and clearly show your potential for success in a new job.

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