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Cover Letter Basics

While few people relish the idea of looking for a new position, many professionals find some facets of the job search process more distasteful than others.  In 20 years of working with job seekers, I've discovered that writing cover letters typically produces more avoidance behavior than either cold calling or committee interviews.  The question is why.  After all, we're talking about a one-page piece of correspondence here, not a doctoral dissertation or a key client proposal.

  • Ironically, the need for cover letters to be succinct and to the point is one of the reasons they are so hard to compose.  People have difficulty summarizing 10-to-20-years of experience in a few cogent sentences.

    As a wise chief financial officer once said when asked for a report forecasting the implications and results of a major acquisition, "Give me two days and I'll give you 30 pages.  Give me a month and I'll condense it to three."  Cutting verbiage and finding the best words to capture your point is hard intellectual work.

  • Few people know what to put in a cover letter.  As with many of life's practical issues:  parenting, managing, finding the right career, we aren't taught good cover letter techniques.  Discovering "the formula" can be a frustrating process full of trial and error.

  • Our egos are on the line.  We know our cover letter, in many instances, is the first impression a potential employer has of us.  We want it to be perfect.  Since perfection breeds procrastination and expects the impossible, we're defeated before we begin.

  • There's a nagging feeling that writing the letter is an exercise in futility.  We realize the odds of getting a job through answering ads or sending out unsolicited resumes are not in our favor.  It's hard to be enthusiastic about composing a tailored letter when we assume it's probably a waste of time.

Unfortunately, cover letters and their resume partners are an integral part of the job search process.  Like any repetitive task, they can become a good deal more palatable if reduced to a step-by-step formula.  In fact, with a little know-how and practice, some job seekers actually elevate them to an intriguing combination of art and science.  Here's how they do it:

  • First of all, they understand cover letters are concise, custom-tailored summaries which speak succinctly and directly to their specific target market.  Savvy candidates also recognize that using a "fill-in-the-blanks" form letter will guarantee their becoming a job search statistic.  Companies want to know why a candidate is interested in them and why they should want to interview him.  And they expect to see a clear, compelling message in 30 seconds or less.  Unless the writer captures their immediate attention, his resume will undoubtedly land in the round file.

  • Good cover letter writers know how to package their product.  They put their correspondence on high rag content paper and use simple, easily-read type.  Copier paper, typos, poor grammar, copied form letters with obviously typed in headings and dot matrix printing are strictly verboten.  If they are E-mailing a cover letter and resume via the Internet, they use a simple text or ASCII format to avoid having their correspondence arrive as gibberish.  Superior writers check every letter carefully, then give it to a picky friend to proofread before personally signing it in non-smudge black or navy ink.

  • Recognizing that an outstanding cover letter is a synergistic combination of form and substance, savvy job seekers always include four key elements whether they are responding to an ad, thanking a contact for a networking appointment (with an attached resume), introducing themselves to potential employers in a targeted direct mail campaign, or following-up with a friend's referral.  These four components are:  the inside address/heading, a paragraph explaining why the job seeker is interested in a particular employer, a section stating specifically what he has to offer the company and a closing indicating what he plans to do next.  Let's take a look at how these components work together in a variety of job search situations. 

The Inside Address/Greeting

  • Answering an Ad – It's always best to put the name and title of your resume's recipient in the inside address and greeting.  Finding this name is easy when it's listed in the ad.  Unfortunately, companies often delete it to protect its owner from being overwhelmed by phone calls.  Don't let this omission stop you from sending your letter directly to the right person.   Show some initiative.  Call the company and ask for the name of the person in charge of Human Resources or whoever is reviewing resumes for XYZ position.  If you find yourself getting lost in voice mail limbo, hold out until you get a receptionist.  While she may be surprised, even amazed by your persistence, she should recover her composure sufficiently to supply the name you need.

    If there is only a P.O. Box, ask the post office if it can release the name of the firm renting it.  If you get the name, proceed as above.  If you don't, begin your letter with a cheery "Good Morning," which has a lot more cachet than "To Whom it May Concern."

    You might also try to ascertain the name of the department manager via the company's website.  Inquiring minds are welcome on the Internet.

  • Letter to a Targeted Company – If you've been researching potential employers, it may take some sleuthing to find the best contact.  To uncover the right manager, call the receptionist, use "Contacts Influential" (found at the library) or check the annual report or homepage for the person in charge of the area where you would like to work.

  • Letters to Friends' Contacts or Networking Thank-You Notes with Attached Resume – Fortunately, in these two situations you already know the name of your recipient.  To assure correct spelling, job title, etc., collect a card at your networking appointment or ask your friend to spell the contact's name.  People get rather testy when their names are misspelled.  In fact, they often interpret this little glitch as a tendency to ignore important details.

Why I'm Interested in You

  • Answering an Ad – Most people responding to ads begin with, "This letter serves as a response to your May 28 ad for a Chief Financial Officer."  While this opening deserves points for brevity, it lacks panache.  To separate yourself from the competition, research annual reports, trade journals or national business publications via the Internet or library to uncover interesting facts about the organization typically not available to the general public.  Then use them in your opening paragraph.  Example:  "Last week I read in the Wall Street Journal that Texas Instruments plans to concentrate its formidable research capabilities on its semiconductor business.  When I found TI's ad for electrical engineers in Sunday's paper, I was intrigued by the opportunity to work for the firm that invented the semiconductor and whose research team continues to break new ground in that technology."

    Another good technique is mentioning a personal interest in the company or its location because of family ties, topographical advantages or environmental stewardship.  Example:  "As a native Texan and a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas, I would really enjoy moving back home and eating some real Tex-Mex for a change."

  • Letter to Targeted Company – The techniques suggested for responding to ads also work well in a direct mail campaign.  Because the company hasn't announced a job opening, you may want to expand your explanation of why you're writing to the organization from a few sentences to a couple of paragraphs.  Without a specific opening to fill, a manager or recruiter must be moved by your infectious enthusiasm for working and contributing to her firm, if she is going to make time to interview you.

  • Letters to Friends' Contacts – Obviously the best way to capture your contact's attention is focusing on your friend's name, his desire for you to meet, and his conviction that your getting together is destiny. If he complimented your contact, call attention to this bit of positive feedback in your letter as well.

  • Networking Thank-You Notes with Attached Resume – In this situation you already know the person receiving your letter, and you've had the opportunity to form a positive impression of his salient attributes, his company and industry.  Choose some of these characteristics to begin your letter.  Example:  "I really appreciate your getting together with me last Friday.  Your enthusiasm about Brinker International's restaurant opportunities and its growth potential is contagious.  As we toured your corporate office, I was struck by its uncommon camaraderie.  Now I understand why Brinker is renown for its low turnover in an industry plagued by revolving-door employees."

Why You Should be Interested in Me

  • Answering an Ad – In the next paragraph or two, summarize the most important experience, skills and personality traits you have to offer this employer.  If the ad lists specific credentials, experience or job responsibilities that match your own, spotlight the similarities.  Quantify as much as you can.  Revenue generated, money saved, percent of defects reduced, size of database generated, and number of employees supervised all give a potential employer an understanding of the scope of your responsibility.

    Also list one or two major achievements which set you apart from your competition.  For instance, if you have recently opened five new offices in Mexico for your current company and the ad mentions the desire to increase Latin-American trade, be sure to focus on your Mexican contacts and sophisticated understanding of its culture and business law. 

  • Letter to Targeted Company – Since you don't have an ad to cue your composition of this section, use information from the company's Internet homepage, annual report or trade and business journal articles to suggest possible parallels between your skills and experience and what the firm needs.  For instance, if it is introducing a new line of products and you have some background in new product management or sales, talk about it in your cover letter.

  • Letters to Friends' Contacts – Be sure to mention why your mutual friend thinks you have a unique contribution to make to the firm.  If Ms. Jones at the Amberton Company has been wrestling with a new management information system and you have a stellar track record for trouble-shooting system problems and motivating disgruntled users, she may be eternally grateful for your friend's suggesting you get in touch.

  • Networking Thank-You Notes with Attached Resume – Since your information interviewee has already offered his assessment of your most applicable skills and experience,  simply reiterate them and add a few parallels of your own.

Where Shall We Go From Here?

  • Answering an Ad – If you know the company running the ad, say you will call in a week to confirm receipt of your resume, answer any immediate questions and schedule an interview, if warranted.  If the company isn't identified, or the ad says "No phone calls," you will have to resort to the standard wimpy line about your excellent match for the position and your anticipation at hearing from them soon.

    If you have responded to an Internet ad via E-mail, check the box on your mail window requesting confirmation when your E-mail is received.  If you haven't found an E-mail response in your box after a few days, contact the company again to inquire about receipt of your resume.

    Blind ads can be very frustrating because you have no control over the process once you've sent in your resume.  Then there's always the unfortunate possibility the advertiser is your own firm.  Unless the job sounds really juicy, it's wise to avoid the hassle of anonymous ads.

  • Letter to Targeted Company – Because you are initiating contact, the next move is your responsibility.  Don't expect your targeted firm to get back to you.  Follow up your letter in about a week to confirm its receipt and suggest a meeting.  Your contact will be expecting your call if you mention your intentions in your letter.

  • Letters to Friends' Contacts – As you have written to the contact, the ball is in your court.  Let your recipient  know you will be phoning for an appointment in about a week.  If he calls you before then, it's icing on the cake.

  • Networking Thank-You Notes with Attached Resume – The last paragraph of this letter will vary according to the results of your information interview.  You may:

    • Confirm an employment interview
    • Mention you've attached the requested resume and will call to assure its receipt
    • Offer to stay in touch until an opening scheduled for next quarter becomes a reality
    • Thank your contact for her referrals and tell her about your plans to see them
    • Suggest you have a proposal you would like to discuss and will be calling in a week or two for an appointment.

While writing cover letters may not be high on your list of "things I want to do today," including the four key elements will simplify the task and get better results.  Sometimes in life we just have to settle for the end justifying the means.


 Career Dimensions ● 214-208-1706 ● tauneeb@careerdimensions-dfw.com

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