The Basics of a Good Cover Letter
What is a cover letter? Also known as a letter of introduction, letter of application, transmittal letter, or broadcast letter, it’s a letter that no smart job-seeker should send his or her resume without.
First Impressions: Your Cover Letter
You’ve written a resume. Now you send it out. Right? No. Without a good cover letter, it’s worthless. In fact, the cover letter is the most important part of your job application. For starters, employers get hundreds of resumes every day, especially if they advertise for a choice job. They’re too busy to give a resume more than a glance, unless something else draws their attention to it. That “something else” is your cover letter. Without a cover letter, most employers won’t even look at your resume. In addition, a cover letter serves several important functions, including:
- telling the employer what job you’re applying for
- bringing their attention to the specific skills and experience you bring to the job
- stressing the benefits of hiring you over someone else
- explaining things the resume leaves out, such as career changes or periods of unemployment
- giving the employer a glimpse into your self
- making you stand out above the crowd
Lets take a closer look at each of these functions of a cover letter.
Telling the employer what job you’re applying for
Cover letters are also called letters of introduction, letters of application, transmittal letters, or broadcast letters. And that’s exactly what they do. They introduce you and transmit your credentials to the employer. Without a cover letter, the employer has no idea what kind of job you are applying for. So the first feature of a cover letter needs to tell the employer the type of position. In addition, it should summarize your qualifications.
The best strategy, when hunting for a job, is to target the specific job you want. The job objective stated on many resumes, however, is often vague. The cover letter lets you be more specific. It also lets you explain to the employer that you are interested in other, similar or related positions that might fit your skills and experience.
Bringing their attention to the specific skills and experience you bring to the job
Your resume shows the broad picture of your qualifications. Every job, however, requires certain specific skills and knowledge over others. Knowing what skills, knowledge and types of experience a particular job requires puts you ahead of the others applying for that job. More important, you need to show specifically how your skills and experience are perfectly matched to the job. A good cover letter does this. It enables employers to weed through the hundreds of resumes they receive a select you as one of the people they interview.
Stressing the benefits of hiring you over someone else
Let’s face it: you’re going to be up against competition from other job seekers. So it’s really important to show why you’re the best person for the job. Do you have some special skill, piece of experience or personality trait that makes you especially desirable for the job? If the job is taking a census of a rare squirrel that lives in the Smoky Mountains, and you happen to know every trail in the Smokys like the back of your hand — including where this squirrel likes to hang out — you’ll have a big advantage over someone who’s never been to the Smokys.
Explaining things the resume leaves out,
Your resume tells a lot of good things about you, but, because of the format, it doesn’t give you a place to explain things that a potential employer might consider problematical. Like that year you took off just after university to travel through Europe. Or how your qualifications might apply to a totally new career. Your cover letter is the place to turn what a potential might otherwise consider a detriment into an asset and explain these things in a positive way.
Giving the employer a glimpse into your self
Look at it from the employment officer’s point of view. Job interviews are rather boring. To be fair, and thorough, they ask the same questions of every applicant. Ninety percent of the time, they get the same answers. So when an employer gets a cover letter that hints that you might be a little more interesting — someone they’d actually like to interview and get to know — you’ve got a better chance at the job.
This doesn’t mean that you have to pull strange tricks to get the interview. What it does mean is that in your cover letter, you can give the potential employer a little hint at your personality. One successful applicant, for example, always writes “ferroequinologist” under his interests. Naturally, he gets asked, “What’s a ferroequinologist?” It turns out that this applicant is interested in trains. Ferro: iron. Equine: horse. The iron horse. This always leads to a short but lively discussion that helps the employer see that this applicant his a lively, dynamic personality.
Cover Letters and Job Hunting Methods
When you’re hunting for you first job, there’s a tendency to think that the only jobs out there are the ones advertised in the paper or over the Internet. If there are big employers near you, you may pop into their employment offices and fill in an application, as well. But the fact is, this kind of job hunting is only touching the tip of the iceberg. There are actually three kinds of job hunting methods, and it pays to use them all.
The three job search methods are:
- Publicly advertised jobs
- Direct mail approach
Each method requires a different kind of cover letter.
Publicly advertised jobs.
When you see in want ad in a newspaper, trade magazine, employment agency, job bank or on various web sites, you are really looking at only about one fifth of the jobs actually available at any one time. Applying to these jobs generally means sending your resume and cover letter, or, sometimes, coming in a filling out an application. The kind of cover letter that goes with this is known as an “invited letter”.
When you write an invited cover letter, you already know the job requirements because they appear in the ad. Your cover letter should address those requirements specifically, explaining you how fit the needs of the job. The better the match, the more chance you have of getting the interview.
Direct mail approach
Since most jobs aren’t advertised, you have to search for them yourself. One way to do this is by sending a “direct mail package” consisting of your resume and a cover letter to all the likely employers in the field you want to enter. Basically, you are letting them know you are in the market for a job and asking them to consider you for any positions that are available.
This approach takes work. You need to research likely employers, getting the name and address of the Human Resource Manager for each firm. Having a specific name is very important. Many companies throw out letters addressed to “Human Resources Manager” or “Dear Sir/Dear Madam.” They figure that if you haven’t bothered to find out the specific name of the person in charge, you aren’t worth employing.
When is this kind of job-search tool most useful? It’s obvious that, if you wanted a job in computers, for example, you could send direct mail packages to every firm in the US, from Maine to Hawaii. In that case, you’d be spending thousands and thousands of dollars, and in most cases, your mailing would be thrown out because you weren’t local or planning to move to the area in the near future. The direct mail approach is the most effective when you want a job with a specific group of businesses or in a specific city or region.
Like the invited cover letter, the cover letter that goes with a direct mailing needs to indicate the type of position you are seeking and highlight your qualifications for that position. But that’s only the beginning.
The goal of the direct mail approach is to get an interview — another reason why blanketing the country won’t work. It’s really at the interview that you have your chance to make the strongest impression, open a dialog with the potential employer and ferret out possible job opportunities. Most employers, however, unless they just happen at that very moment to be looking for an employee with your special qualifications, will probably not phone you for an interview. So here’s where you have to be proactive. In your cover letter, indicate that you will call on a specific date to arrange, if possible, an interview to discuss possible positions. Then telephone the employer on the date specified and set up the interview. Be persistent. If the person you want to speak to isn’t in, don’t give up. Call again. If that person isn’t available for a meeting in the near future, ask when would be a good time to call again to try to schedule. Don’t give up. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and most employers today are genuinely busy. One happily employed user of this method of job hunting tells how she played telephone tag for a month with a particular department head, not even knowing if he had a job available. Finally she was able to catch up with him and set up an appointment. The day after the interview, she was offered a job. Was the employer looking for another employee? No. But she fit a special niche within the company that was empty at that moment. The impression had she made, both with her persistence and her personality, made the employer decide to offer her a job.
Who you send your direct mail package to is another key fact in the success of this approach. Believe it or not, the best person is not the Human Resources Manager. It’s the manager of the department or division in which you want to work. Getting the name of this person takes more effort, but its well worth it. While the Human Resources Manager may have an idea of the overall employment needs of a business at any one time, (and a good HR Manager may take a proactive approach, passing on to the department or division managers the credentials of likely candidates who appear even when no apparent job is available, most of the time), most HR managers simply keep your credentials on file — and then forget you. A department or division manager is in a much better position to see exactly how you can fit into the needs of his or her area. It may be, for instance, that the department has been experiencing a particular problem and that the experience you bring to the job is the solution. Or that your qualifications enables the department/division to explore or take advantage of new opportunities. For example, say you are an advertising copywriter with a lot of skill writing for the medical field. There are a lot of hospitals, HMOs and medical manufacturers nearby, but the ad agency you’re applying to doesn’t have any of them as clients. Employing you enables them to take on a whole new group of clients and expand their business. The Human Resources Manager is not likely to see this opportunity — but the Creative Director of the ad agency, who will be your boss, can. Bingo! You have a job.
The final component in the direct mail approach is the interview itself. Come well-prepared. Do as much research as you can into the business you are applying to. Who are their major customers? What products or services do they offer? At the interview, ask questions designed to uncover the problems your potential employer may be facing and the opportunities the company would like to pursue. As you discuss these with your future boss, indicate how your skills and experience may be able to help the company with these goals. In other words, what you are trying to do is create a job for yourself.
Even when the interview does not result in a job offer, there’s still something you should take away with you — the names of other employers who might be interested in you. Once you have those names, you’re ready to try the next method of job hunting.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s not what you know — it’s who you know.” Nowhere is this more true than when you’re looking for a job. The networking approach to job hunting uses the name of someone known to your potential employer to get your foot in the door. Most employment experts say this is the most effective way to get a job.
How does it work? It starts with tracking down the names of people who know of potential jobs or employers you can approach. That’s why it’s so important, no matter what kind of job interview you go on, to ask the question, “Do you know anyone else who might be looking for a person with my kind of qualifications?” Or “Can you recommend anyone else I should talk to while I’m looking for a job?” Ask the person giving you the reference if you can use their name. If you can, you’re off and running.
The next step is to send your resume, along with a cover letter to the person you’ve been referred to. In this cover letter, the name of the person who referred you should feature prominent, in the first paragraph. People are always more willing to talk to someone who knows someone they know, rather than a complete stranger, and this gives you an advantage over other job applicants.
Here are some ways you can start your letter:
“My professor, Dr. James Edgecomb, has been mentoring me in my job search and has encouraged me to talk to you about possible positions within your company.”
“A couple of days ago, I was talking with Stanley Burchardt, one of your customers, and he told me how impressed he has always been with your products and services. He knows I’ve been looking for a job with a company with a high standard of service and suggested that I talk to you.”
“Last week I met with Jane Asher, of Asher Design, about potential jobs. After looking at my portfolio, she thought that I would match the needs of your company well and recommended that I contact you.”
Where do you get your referrals? Everywhere. In addition to asking for referrals at job interviews, talk to your parents, the friends of your parents, teachers, former colleagues and workmates, former employers. Attend trade association meetings and seminars. Let everyone know the kind of job you’re looking for and ask them if they know anyone in the field.
Again, the purpose of your cover letter is to get an interview. Specify a time you’ll call to set up and interview and be persistent in calling into you get the appointment. Use the same strategies at the networking interview as you did at the direct mail interview to uncover possible jobs.
Don’t be discouraged if, at the interview, you discover that the person you’re talking to isn’t really the right person — or in a position to offer you a job. Instead, ask who the right person is and if you can mention their name when you contact that person.
Don’t worry if you have to go through several interviews with various people. The networking approach is like a treasure hunt. Each new name is a new clue. It’s not uncommon for to talk to a dozen or more people before your search yields results. So don’t give up after only a couple of interviews. There’s a pot of gold at the end.