Imagine you are sitting in a movie theater watching previews or trailers for coming attractions. Most of what you are seeing is silly, violent, bland, or just plain incomprehensible. Then, out of the blue, comes a trailer that, in one manner or another, captures your attention in a positive manner. It is entertaining, compelling, even funny. It piques your interest and makes you want to go see the movie. It has done its job.
Consider the cover letter the trailer for your resume. It exists to motivate the reader to “see the movie.”
There is more.
It is a week later and you are in the theater, watching the movie. Every time one of the clips from the trailer comes on there is a connection. That was the piece of business you have been waiting to see again since first viewing it in the trailer. There is an actual feeling of emotional gratification. You have also been provided a glimpse into the universe in which it exists. You have context! It wasn’t just some gratuitous event the director threw in but an important component of the story.
In the same way, the claims you made in the cover letter need to exist and have a context in the resume. If not, imagine what kind of emotional letdown you can expect from the reader, and then the subsequent result.
Unless prohibited by the prospective employer, resumes should be accompanied by a cover letter tailored to the specific job to which you are applying. This is true for electronic submissions, providing there’s enough space. For these, we recommend placing the cover letter in with the resume document. There it will be the first thing the reader will see on opening the file. This strategy is especially valid for those resumes forwarded to the different recruiters and managers within your targeted employers groups. It assures the cover letter will be included for all parties to see and consider.
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 merely stating your availability and interest. Orient your letter toward obtaining a specific job, just that job and nothing but that job!
Think It Through
Writing a customized cover letter takes thought and preparation. For example, before you can assure an employer that you are a perfect fit for a position, you must assure yourself. This requires determining how well your experience and skill set meet the job’s requirements.
Start by gathering as much information as possible about the company and available position. Try to obtain a job description or other specifications. If a job description is not available, talk with networking contacts and hiring authorities, review company documents, or visit the Internet or library to research the profession and industry. We’ll discuss a method for tailoring your cover letter on page 269 (Tailoring Your Cover Letter to Increase Your Interviews).
Most job descriptions are written with the mythical “ideal candidate” in mind. This is similar to fantasizing about the similarly mythical “ideal mate,” and nearly as impossible to find. Few candidates, if any, have the sum total of all the skills, experience, and attributes employers are looking for.
In many cases, they aren’t even looking for the person with the full-meal skill deal. Job titles and classifications exist primarily for the benefit of the payroll office, providing a systematic method for paying people. Similarly, the job description is often an amalgamation of everything everyone in the company with that particular designation does. Yet, when the hiring manager needs a new employee, HR will invariably run the standard boilerplate classified ad.
So, don’t be intimidated if you are not a perfect match. You might have the perfect skill set the company needs at this time. That is why internal research can be so important; it lets you get to know exactly which of your cards to play.
If you cannot develop that information, the best strategy is to select those pieces of the job in which you feel most qualified and make your case.
Next, write down the job’s duties and responsibilities. For each item, frame a brief explanation of 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 the employer sees your background as a good match with the opening.
Your mission in the cover letter (and later in the interview) is to express your 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. While it is usually an advantage to tailor both your resume and cover letter, when time is tight, create a special cover letter for the position and make some quick tweaks to your resume.
Here’s where the cover letter earns its pay. For example, one of our clients determined that personnel supervision was a primary requirement for a job to which he was applying. His strongest supervisory experience, however, was earlier in his career and not fully delineated in the resume. Here is how he addressed the issue in his cover letter:
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
by my staff and superiors as a firm yet fair manager who was always available to his
staff. The unit consistently met its deadlines and budget constraints, earning two per
formance commendations from senior management.
A paragraph like this would describe your pertinent experience without diluting or adding undue length to your resume.
Target Hiring Authorities
The mantra of the job search is identifying and directly contacting the hiring authorities. Cover letters sent to HR departments can get lost or not forwarded to these hiring authorities with the resumes. Because your cover letter is designed to enhance your resume, try to increase the odds that a hiring manager receives them together. When possible, direct your letter and attached resume directly to the hiring manager. When snail mailing, use paper clips to attach the two documents and mention in your letter that your resume is enclosed. One good idea is to use the same header from the resume on the letter. It is an impressive way to brand your submissions, similar to using a personal letterhead. It’s perfectly acceptable, however, to prepare cover letters on standard white paper.
Beware of the cover letter that presents you in pale generalities or empty superlatives. These one-size-fits-all cover letters are insulting, self-defeating, and destined for the trash can. Make sure you provide context for those nice things you say about yourself.
The Time Machine
Another way to look at the cover letter is 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, the major consideration in any hiring decision. Match your cover letter to the job you are 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 the new job.
Know Your Audience
It is critical to inform the reader that you understand the organization to which you are applying. One or two well-placed sentences can usually do the job. What do you know about the company? Have you used its products or services?
“As an avid golfer, I have used your line of clubs for over ten years. Long before I ever dreamed of representing you, I have been extolling the virtues of your products to anyone and everyone who would listen.”
“In this era of increasingly impersonal service, I have been overwhelmed by the personalized service I have received, and continue to receive, at 1st Coastal Bank. This is the kind of philosophy that builds loyal customers such as myself.”
Do you know people who are employed there? If so, what do they say about it?
Joanne Gibson, your eastside branch manager, who I have known for years through our professional organization, assures me that there is no better place to work than XYZ.
Roger Gray, your Regional Purchasing Manager, has been my customer for eight
years. He is a quality individual and can’t say enough about ABC.
John McNamara at IBM believes you are one of the top management consulting firms in the country.
Has it been featured in the media for one or more achievements?
The Puget Sound Business Journal described your company as “the small company with the big heart.”
The recent feature on your company in the New York Times business section convinced me that you are now the gold standard in the industry.
To get the clearest picture of how an organization views itself, visit its web-site and check out its mission statement. Next, check out the company history to get an idea as to its track record. Adapt these items into your cover letter.
Like the ABC Company, I have a reputation for uncompromising customer service.
The XYZ Agency was founded to provide free or low-cost housing services to previously unserved populations. My background in developing and implementing similar programs is perfectly aligned with that mission.
to whom it maY ConCern
As repeatedly mentioned throughout, always try to get your material directly to the hiring authority. This strategy, however, is becoming more and more difficult as managers are now well hidden behind layers of impersonal gatekeepers, email, and voicemail. Their identities are often protected with the same levels of
security as the Manhattan Project.
But you have to send the stuff to somebody!
Most job announcements will provide some direction as to whom to address your materials. Usually, it is the ubiquitous “Human Resources Department.” A phone call to HR requesting the name of the specific individual handling this position can be valuable. It can also yield nothing.
In these cases, the appropriate heading might read “Dear Human Resources.” A little awkward but it’s better than nothing.
Additional acceptable salutations might include:
Dear Sales Manager Dear Service Manager Dear Engineering Manager
Here are some headings to avoid:
To Whom It May Concern Dear Sirs Dear Sir or Ma’am
When in doubt use the term “Search Director.” It is gender neutral and unlikely to offend anybody.
THE JOB’S THE THING
Use the exact job title as it is being advertised, not what you think the position should be called. Job titles vary from company to company and even within certain large companies. Titles such as program manager, project manager, and product manager are often used interchangeably in general conversation but within certain organizations can have major differences in status, responsibility, and compensation. In one company a sales manager’s job is to supervise a workforce; in another it describes an individual contributor assigned to a specific region.
Most jobs have an associated reference number, which can be easily inserted in the cover letter to avoid any confusion.
I am applying for the position of Machinist (Ref #M-206) with the Coleman Company.
The cover letter is a piece of correspondence that introduces you to an employer. All resumes sent through the mail should be accompanied by a cover letter. The cover letter personalizes your resume and gives it greater flexibility. If
your resume does not contain an objective, the cover letter is the place to express it. A cover letter provides an opportunity to share points that are not easily covered in a resume. So a resume and a cover letter represent the ideal vehicle to get across all of the key ideas you want an employer to know about you.
A resume that arrives without a cover letter is an incomplete presentation. There is no indication that you have any idea as to what you are applying for or where you’re applying for it. It smacks of shotgunning, or shooting your resume to any and all targets out there. This is not a recommended or effective practice.
When answering a want ad, specify the exact job title in the cover letter. It is not necessary to specify the source of the ad or its date. The exact title will provide all the information HR needs. When an ad explicitly requests certain types of experience that you have, but that are not adequately covered in the resume, use your cover letter to fill in the details. The alternative would be to rewrite your resume slightly to include the necessary details. A highly targeted cover letter with a resume modified specifically for that job will usually provide better results.
View your cover letter and resume as a team. Each performs a different function, but they must work well together. Cover letters generally consist of two to four short paragraphs and seldom total more than twenty lines. The first paragraph should open with a strong statement about you that arouses interest and curiosity. Devote a middle paragraph to an accomplishment that will further arouse interest. Refer to the parts of the resume that make your strongest case. Don’t be afraid to select specific entries from the resume and either present them exactly or paraphrase them.
Appeal to the employer’s self-interest by supplying those specific examples or universal strengths that demonstrate your value. You are a problem solver and hiring you will lead to increased production, greater efficiency, better planning, less waste, higher profits, and more satisfied customers.
I can save money for your firm by utilizing my experience in cost control. At Standard Products I reduced paper usage by 24% and photocopying costs by 30%.
I can help increase the impact of your agency. While at Family Services I wrote a proposal that was funded for $22,000. This allowed us to significantly increase the
quantity and quality of our services.
CREATE A TEMPLATE
Since most of the positions you will be applying for will be fairly closely related, you can prepare a basic template you can massage for each position. In most cases, up to 80% or even 90% of the content will be permanent. It is the remainder you personalize for each position.
In creating the template, first determine which of your key assets you wish to include. Select the ones that provide an accurate representation of your skill set as it applies to the types of jobs you are seeking.
Thus, if you are looking at retail management, which of your demonstrated skills and experiences will best showcase your value to the reader? Leadership, sales increases, margin increases, cost containment, company awards, and special assignments will count here.
If you are transitioning to a related field or seeking a promotion, select those pieces of your past that best support your argument. A project lead applying for management; a customer service specialist attempting to move into sales give you several options. Present the experiences and the achievements that most reflect those successes and, of course, inform the reader that this is just the tip of the iceberg, with more to follow in the resume.
Below is an example of a cover letter template. Can you build one like it for yourself?
Most job seekers send off the resume and cover letter to the posted address to await the positive response that may or may not come. Unfortunately, no response is often the only response they get. Whether online or in the mail, it is becoming more common for companies to not even acknowledge receipt of your materials. Why? Lack of resources, for one. Corporations are operating “lean and mean!” So, even if a response requires little more than entering some personalized data into a response letter or email, chances are there is nobody around to do it. The best you might hope for is an autoresponse message acknowledging receipt. Not real warm and fuzzy.
If you did your homework, you sent your packet directly to the hiring authority. It may end up, unread, in HR, but at least there is a chance your intended target will read it.
With that in mind, take it to the next level. Instead of awaiting a reply, inform the hiring authority that you will be following up with a phone call to schedule a brief meeting to discuss the position and, perhaps, other opportunities within the organization. Do not use the word interview! An interview is a formal, by-the-numbers step in the hiring process. A meeting is a get-together of two individuals for the express purpose of sharing ideas. It is to learn more about the position, the type of work, and the company prior to making formal application.
Tailor your cover letters even if you develop a standard cover letter to be sent to a hundred or more companies. Write the cover letter so you can insert the name of the company somewhere in the body of the letter.
Review the sample cover letters, then simply start writing.
February 4, 2009
John Travis, Director Home Energy Department
N. W. Center for Energy Efficiency 323 Sixth Avenue Seattle, Washington 98021
Dear Mr. Travis:
Your recent efforts to promote energy conservation are of great interest to me. My experience as Energy Consultant for Seattle City Light would make me an excellent candidate for several positions in your organization.
While at City Light, I have inspected and provided energy savings estimates on over 500 homes. Eighty percent of the homeowners have acted on one or more of my suggestions and have averaged over 17% in energy savings.
I will call you next week to arrange a brief meeting.
January 11, 2009
Leslie Acosta Regional Sales Manager Peoples Pharmaceuticals 5825 146th Avenue S.E. Bellevue, Washington 98006
Dear Ms. Acosta:
I was attracted to Peoples Pharmaceuticals when I read your annual report. My medical background and my customer service experience make me an excellent candidate for a sales/marketing position in your organization.
While at Danton Instruments, I was a key person involved in the writing and organization of new product manuals. My oral presentations to the sales force were always valuable and well received. District sales managers and the sales representatives themselves consistently expressed appreciation for the sales aids and information given to them. In addition, a large part of my time was spent working closely with our customers,
successfully troubleshooting problems, answering questions, and informing them of
new products or instrument applications that might better serve their needs.
I will look forward to hearing from you soon.
Next is an example where the applicant has spoken to the employer by phone and is thanking the person for having given him some time. There was no opening, so the cover letter is also acting as a thank-you note. Notice that the first paragraph was written strictly for this one letter. The other paragraphs are part of the standard cover letter.
Paulette Meyers National Sales Manager San Sebastian Winery San Sebastian, California 95476
Dear Ms. Meyers:
I very much enjoyed our conversation yesterday. As I indicated, I have always been impressed with San Sebastian Winery. At the Blue Panda in Portland, I was instrumental in taking San Sebastian wines from our sixth most popular wine to number two. I totally agree with you that a top sales rep must be highly knowledgeable about wines. I
frequently invite wine reps to give wine tastings at the restaurant, both for my own benefit
and for the staff. I think you would be impressed with both my knowledge and my palate.
At the Blue Panda Restaurants I have always been a producer. I run what has become one of the most profitable restaurants in the chain, and our wine sales are ranked number one. At each of the four restaurants I’ve managed, wine sales experienced dramatic increases. I am committed to remaining in the Northwest and am confident I can substantially increase your wine sales in this region.
I will call you in a few weeks to learn about any developments. Sincerely,
Dear Mr. Ronagen: Your ad for a Western Region Dealer Representative was of great interest to me. I am very impressed with the Mitsubishi Company and the cars it produces. I would very much like to be a part of Mitsubishi, particularly in the area of dealer servicing. I can help Mitsubishi establish the reputation it wants for parts and service.
I know what is required to make service and parts departments run smoothly and
profitably. I have always developed close working relations with dealership owners as well as parts and service managers.
In Oregon I worked closely with 16 VW dealerships. Most were poorly managed and barely making money. The service departments were all losing money. Within a year their appearances were tremendously improved, mechanics and service managers had
received additional training, and quality control and inventory control systems had been
established. Parts sales jumped 85%, and sales of new cars rose 45%. I am committed to the automotive industry. My experience in Oregon is just one example of what I have been able to do with dealerships. Please feel free to contact me so I can tell you more about my background.
Dear Mr. Swenson:
As a Project Manager and Construction Manager for Danson Construction, I have overseen both large and small projects. As an architect I can design projects or work with an architect to come up with the best and most cost-effective design. I have hired contractors and have been very successful in making sure the projects were completed
on time and were of high quality.
My degree in architecture, along with four years’ experience in designing, cost estimating, and managing construction projects, plus nearly one year of drafting, make me an ideal candidate for your Facilities Engineer position. I am a person of high energy, which has enabled me to watch the many details of a construction project and make sure everything was completed correctly. That same energy and hard work will prove most helpful as I oversee projects at your many facilities along the East Coast.
Dear Ms. Glasser:
Since age eleven I have wanted to work as a flight attendant. I’ve been working in
restaurants the last four years because I believed it would give me the best training
possible for being a flight attendant.
I moved up into restaurant management so quickly because I proved I could handle the
responsibility. I mix very well with customers and make each one feel important. This has increased the number of steady customers at each restaurant where I have worked.
I am also a problem solver. At Leo’s I helped reduce operating costs significantly. At J. K. Jake’s I reduced turnover by working more closely with the staff.
I am very much looking forward to interviewing for a flight attendant position.
Dear Ms. Preminger:
I have had a very exciting nine years in hotel sales, six of those years as Director of Sales.
During that time I have developed highly effective techniques for attracting association
and corporate business.
I would enjoy very much the opportunity to describe in more detail why those
techniques have worked so well, and why I would function effectively as your next Sales
Make Your Resume and Cover Letter Work as a Team
On the next two pages you’ll find Dante Jackson’s resume and cover letter. Notice how he expands some of the points from the resume he included in the cover letter. Dante created a personalized letterhead for himself. The decision to do so is up to you. Dante used the Arial font for his cover letter and resume but selected Arial Rounded Bold for his letterhead.
How does it look to you? When in doubt, use the same header as on the resume. It provides a “branding” of your presentation.