The Cover Letter

The Best Kept Secret in the Job Hunting Process!

Our 2005 edition of this book follows.  For more information regarding our 2009 edition, please find it included within "A Winning Resume... 7 Seconds to Success!" available at this site and newly at Amazon.com!

 

PURPOSE OF THE COVER LETTER

 

The cover letter, you will learn, is the best kept secret in the job hunting process.  Although you can find articles, and even books on the subject, they seem to be devoted entirely to the routines of form and function.   This guide discusses strategy, effectiveness of content and how the rules change according to employer preferences and technology.

 

What we propose to do for you is certainly not routine! We intend to expose the secret to you and bring to your attention the power of the cover letter, and, its importance in your quest for the ideal job. We want to make you aware of the rare opportunities a good cover letter presents.

 

An effective cover letter accomplishes the following:

Sets you apart from and ahead of your competition for the job

Targets your resume powerfully to the job requirements

Convinces the employer of your sincere and stable interest

Grants you follow up control


Not every candidate uses the cover letter, and the very existence of a cover letter can immediately set you apart and keep you through "round 1" of candidate elimination. Some candidates use form or "Dear Employer" cover letters. This is sometimes worse than no cover letter at all and is expected to produce elimination no later than "round 2."

 

This document introduces your resume and you to the screening authority, whom most likely you have never met and who will make the decision about whether or not to continue granting you precious time. It is a screening team’s responsibility to not waste company time by producing obviously disqualified candidates. What’s interesting here is that if you are wrongfully disqualified, it likely goes undetected. Yet, if your candidacy is passed along and you’re not an appropriate candidate, the error is noticed and the screening team is blamed. That is, it can be riskier to send you through than to disqualify you. Knowing this, use every competitive edge you can find.

 

The resume is a factual, impersonal and general record of your credentials and experience. Often, the resume wasn’t even prepared by the candidate. The cover letter, however, can be a compelling individualized message targeting to a specific opportunity. The cover letter reinforces your interest.

 

In today’s world of "shopping cart" job boards, employers cannot trust the serious intent and interest of any specific candidate. The cover letter answers to that concern and sets you apart… ahead of the competition!

 

The cover letter provides you opportunity to favorably influence the potential employer through strategic information and dynamic language, to motivate that person to grant you an interview… or at least phone screen. It affords you the opportunity to actually express passion and desirable behavioral characteristics essential to the position.

 

By learning the rules and applying certain specific strategies you will be able to write a dynamic and impressive cover letter. To assist you in this endeavor, we have provided the following information regarding Rules and Strategies.

 

 
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RULES

 

Learn the Employer's Preferred Means of Application

• If an employer is asking for electronic application through on-line templates, you MUST follow directions and use those templates precisely.  Failing to do so will certainly set you apart -- but negatively, as someone who cannot or will not respect and follow instruction.

• If an employer provides an email address, your cover letter is your e-mail message and your resume is the attachment.

• If an employer provides an on-line application method with any space/field for additional comments, copy and paste a targeted cover letter into that field.

• In person, postal mail and faxed resumes are most effective when accompanied by a targeted cover letter on separate matching stationery.  (Obviously the matching is less important when faxing.)

 

Be specific

• First, a cover letter must be very specific. By specific we mean that it should refer to a specific job, and if possible, also to a specific company and/or industry.

• The cover letter must be tailored to fit each job for which you apply. This means that you must send an original cover letter each time you apply for a job. You probably will not need to re-write an entire new cover letter each time, but you will need to adjust the content so that it is specific to each job.

• If you are enlisting the help of a professional service to write your resume, I would suggest that you "run for the hills"  if someone tells you that they can also write your cover letter.  Nothing gets thrown more quickly into the "not interested" pile than a resume with a "form" cover letter. Also, your chances of getting a quality resume from these people are probably non-existent.

• The #1 rule in cover letter writing is that each cover letter must be original.  It must be directed to a specific position and relate to specific job criteria. This means that unless you want to pay someone to write a cover letter for you each time you send out your resume, you will have to learn how to write that letter yourself.  Remember, a form cover letter is absolutely not acceptable!

 

Purpose/Expectations

The potential employer expects to learn three things from your cover letter.

1. To which position are you applying?
2. Why do you want the job?   Why are you interested in the company?  (To ensure you'll stick with it and dedicate to it.)
3. Do you meet the requirements better than your competition?

It is the ultimate goal of the resume/cover letter to get you the interview.  Therefore, you must convince the reader that an interview with you is worth their time.  Reading and sorting through a cluttered inbox of cover letters and resumes is a difficult task.  Specific and relevant information will ease that task and greatly improve your chances for securing an interview.  Once you have the interview, it is the interview which will get you the job.

 

Format

Limit your letter to one page with plenty of "white space."  Three to four brief paragraphs should be sufficient. Use a standard, professional business format.

 

Quality

The quality should be just as professional as the resume.  Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be correct.  If you do not have computer access, then it would be advisable to enlist help or use a public library computer.  Use the same font style as the resume. Fonts should be fairly standard print. "Arial," "Verdana" or a similar font would be very acceptable.  If hard copy, stationery should match that of the resume (envelopes should also be matching).  Use an off-white conservative color.  According to employer survey, Ivory is preferred as professional with warmth.  Light gray is 2nd most popular, especially a "warmer" shade of light gray.  Avoid bright colors.  While they will certainly get attention, they will negatively impact reader bias, appearing obnoxious, displeasing to the eye and overbearing.

 

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STRATEGIES & FORMATS

 

Now that we have addressed all the basics, let us get down to discussing that best kept secret in the job hunting process.  The three most important strategies of the cover letter are personalize, personalize, personalize! 

Each section of the resume affords you a unique opportunity to personalize your message.  In most cases you will be able to address your letter to a specific company and/or person.  Your greatest opportunity to "grab" the reader's interest will be in your opening sentence.  Start with a specific statement about the company or the person to which you are applying.  Your middle paragraph(s) should present your personal qualifications as they relate to the position.  Lastly, in your closing, you can personalize your interest in the position through summarizing statements of your credentials and also by asking for a meeting.

We'll start by discussing to whom you should be addressing your letter and follow with a detailed discussion of each section.

 

Addressee

Do your very best to address your letter to a specific person.  There may be times when you do not know the name of the hiring company.  If you have a name and title, use them both with correct spelling.  While Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr. and other prefixes help, do not assume gender, as a mistake will hurt you. 

 

If you are not responding to a recruitment but wish to apply to a specific employer, first visit the employer’s website to search for instructions on how to apply or postings of available opportunities.  Today most employers prefer resumes submitted online.  Please be respectful of this protocol. 

 

If you do not have contact name or title to address, a safe salutation is “Dear Hiring Authority, (Employer Name).”  The use of “Dear” is somewhat controversial but found to be preferred by most employers surveyed.  This salutation demonstrates your interaction style.  Another choice will make a statement about you, so choose carefully.  “Hiring Authority” demonstrates respect for your audience, and this is always a good start!

 
Using Your Contacts, Professional Endorsements and References

If you know of someone held in high esteem by the hiring authority, by all means use that name in your cover letter.  In doing so, please be certain this person has credibility with your resume/cover letter screener.  Avoid the “guilty by association” syndrome.   We strongly recommend that you respect the instructions of application/resume submission and do not use contacts in avoidance of this instruction.  First apply through the recruiting company’s preferred means, and then, if you have a credible contact willing, have that professional follow up to personally endorse you with the hiring authorities.  Show respect for the process and respect for ALL people and instructions involved in the process!

 

 

First Paragraph

Establish a personal connection... prove and create interest.  If possible, in your very first sentence, try to say something positive about the employer to which you are applying. This strategy not only flatters and creates positive bias with the reader, but also sets forth your sincere commitment to the company and begins to convince the reader of your potential to be a long term, enthusiastic and dedicated contributor to the organization.  Today's employer invests substantially into the training of new hires.  The average payback to the employer is approximately 7 months before they stop losing money from hiring you.  Stability is a huge concern to employers.

Citing knowledge of the particular person or company will also demonstrate the extra effort and time you have devoted to learn about this particular company. This in itself should give you the advantage over other applicants.  It will establish an immediate connection, as well as, illuminate your interest and sincerity regarding the position.

In that opening paragraph, it is critical that you identify the job title or department to which you are applying.  This will 1) appropriately route your resume, 2) set forth your career focus (without which you are a less desirable candidate), and 3) attain the reader's favorable bias by making your message more clear and simple to understand.

Starting your letter with personalized information about the company can be done fairly easily. Your best source for the most updated information is probably the Internet.  

 

Middle Paragraph(s)

What can you bring to the job? One or two paragraphs should be used to discuss your credentials as they relate to the job requirements.  Do not restate your resume, but use your brief explanation to mention job qualifications not detailed on your resume or briefly address that you fulfill each of the requirements presented.  If possible, quickly restate those requirements without exceeding allowable cover letter length or being too redundant to your resume.  The potential employer will be looking for a match between your qualifications and their job requirements. The reader wants that set forth as clearly and concisely as possible.

This is also where you can "win over" the employer by discussing additional credentials and other pertinent personal information. This is the perfect opportunity for you to include information that will further demonstrate your many qualifications. You have already addressed each of the job criteria, but perhaps you have something extra that will set you apart from the other applicants.  Please be certain that the something extra is targeted to the job and doesn't over-qualify you.


Whether you meet all the requirements or not, you must do your best to address each one. If there is absolutely nothing you can say to demonstrate some related experience to a job requirement, than you will have no choice but to avoid mentioning it. The prospective employer will be looking for very specific information and they will, most likely, be willing to do some training if most of these criteria can be met. Your resume will reveal your credentials, so do not repeat your resume in detail but rather relevant summary statements.  If you do not meet certain requirements the cover letter provides you with an excellent opportunity to maximize the skills and experience you do have and minimize those in which you are lacking.  One way to do this is by providing something extra about yourself.


How do I add that something "extra" to my cover letter?
The something extra would be something you have done that would be related to the job you seek, but is not listed as a job requirement. Examples:

• Skills/experience

Special projects, materials you may have published, committee or panel memberships, special appointments, other related/transferable skills

• Education/Licenses/Certifications

Special coursework, seminars, conferences, licenses, certifications

• Personal/Professional Interest

Independent research or readings, memberships in professional organizations, volunteer work

• Recognition Earned

Professional awards, recognition for achievement


If you have related experience that has been on a more personal basis such as hobbies, personal projects or volunteer work, then most likely, this information will not be on your resume.  This is your chance to include that information.  If you mention a related hobby or some volunteer work, you do not need to go into much detail. The fact that you have performed these functions on your own will suggest genuine interest, as well as possible skills enhancement.  If you have additional professional experience and it is not required but  is on your resume, then you can mention it again in your letter to emphasize this information and ensure the employer's awareness.  Again, please don't restate your resume - just point to or mention the item so that it's not overlooked.

Any time you can add "something extra" to your cover letter you will be adding additional value to your credentials which could also translate into additional value for the company. Another very positive outcome could be your portrayal of yourself through favorable behavioral traits including work ethic, sincerity, ambition, dedication, reliability, commitment, perseverance, etc.

 

Last Paragraph: The Closing

This is where you summarize your qualifications, thank the employer (for the opportunity to respond to the job opening or for taking time to review your credentials), and ask for the interview.

 

Summarize

In a brief sentence or two you should restate why you are qualified for this specific position.

"With solid credentials and a longstanding interest in human services, I believe I could bring a strong sense of assurance, commitment and competency to the position."

   

Thank the employer

"Thank you for taking the time to review my credentials" or "Thank you for your consideration."

 

Ask for the interview

The employer expects you to ask for the interview!

Failing to follow direction or intruding uninvited upon the employer's time will hurt you.
   If you are applying to a sales role, a more assertive approach is acceptable, but be mindful of instruction!

 
Follow-up Is Appropriate When…
You are provided a specific name, email address or title, and at no point have you been instructed to not follow up.  Read every instruction carefully before making this assumption.  Under these conditions, be certain to follow up.  Make sure you contact when you say you will.  Below are examples of cover letter statements:

 

"I will contact you next week to see if we can arrange a personal meeting for further discussion."

  

"I will be in Chicago from August 15th through the 18th. I will contact your office next week to see if it would be convenient for you to meet with me during that time."

 

Follow-up Is Not Appropriate When… You are not provided a specific name, email address or title, but rather an on-line database form or Internet application for which to apply, and you have received instruction somewhere which deters follow up.  Examples include “No phone calls, please,” or “We ask you to apply by Internet only.”  The only candidates who should consider contact beyond these requests are those required to aggressively ignore communication protocol on the job, e.g. salespeople not responsible for relationship building.   Respecting the time of others you are applying to report to and respecting the instruction of a prospective employer is critical to presenting yourself positively and remaining in candidacy.  Demonstrating attention to detail is always important!

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

Purpose of the Cover Letter

Rules

Strategies & Format: Opening Paragraph

Strategies & Format: Middle Paragraph(s)

Strategies & Format: Closing Paragraph