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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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