by Deborah Walker
If you are like many who have resolved to move your job search into high gear, don’t forget the importance of the cover letter as part of your self-marketing materials. The cover letter is essential for creating a positive first impression. Additionally it answers questions such as:
- “Why should I bother reading one more resume?”
- “What’s this applicant’s interest level?”
- “How is this prospective candidate unique?”
Cover letters should be customized according to each of the four basic job-search strategies:
- Responding to job postings.
- Resume distribution to employers of your target market.
- Contacting recruiters or headhunters.
- Networking among your professional contacts.
Each strategy requires a different type of cover letter.
1. Cover letters responding to job postings. Editor’s note: Quintessential Careers refers to this type as The Invited Cover Letter.
Responding to ads/job postings is the most common (though not necessarily most effective) job-search activity. Rather than respond with a canned message, take the time to write a brief cover letter that maps your work experience to the job qualifications.
Here are a few tips on writing a cover letter when responding to job postings.
- Whenever possible, address the letter to a specific person rather than “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern.” Don’t be afraid to call the company for the name of the hiring manager. The worst they will do is not give you the name.
- Match your letter to the job description by using the key words and phrases found in the ad. Where applicable, list point by point how you match the requirements of the position. Editor’s note: See also our article, Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness, which also applies to cover letters. An excellent technique for matching requirements to your qualifications is the two-column cover letter.
- Provide accomplishments that illustrate the level of your qualifications, but do not repeat word for word from your resume. Avoid redundancy. Editor’s note: For tools to help you identify accomplishments, see our article, For Job-Hunting Success: Track/Leverage Your Accomplishments and our Job-Seeker Accomplishments Worksheet.
- Avoid overuse of the word “I.” Translate “I” sentences into “You” or “Your” sentences. For example, turn “I am interested in the position…” into “Your company will benefit from my experiences as…”
A little practice at customizing your cover letters will help get you through the screening door and on your way to career-changing interviews.
2. Cover letters proactively sent to your target market of employers. Editor’s note: Quintessential Careers refers to this type as the Uninvited or Cold Contact Cover Letter.
The savvy job-seeker does not wait to hear about openings — he or she looks for openings before they become public knowledge. One way to find unpublished job leads is to conduct your own target-market search. This strategy involves first defining a group of companies or organizations most likely interested in your background and expertise then contacting hiring managers to let them know of your availability. The reference librarian at your local library is a valuable source of information on how to research your target companies. Editor’s note: See also our Guide to Researching Companies, Industries, and Countries.
Below are a few hints on writing effective cover letters for your target market.
- Whenever possible, address your letter to the hiring manager rather than Human Resources. Again, you may need to make a phone call to sleuth out the information, but you could yield great results.
- Start the letter off indicating your knowledge and interest of the company. Give the reader reason to believe that you haven’t just pulled the employer’s name out of a hat.
- List briefly your qualifications and accomplishments and the position you’re offering to fill.
- Again, use “I” sparingly.
- End your letter with a promise to call by a certain day. Since this contact is proactive, it is up to the job-seeker to initiate phone communication.
While the target-market strategy is time-consuming it often yields surprising results. A job lead discovered through proactive methods means little or no competition from other job-seekers.
3. Cover letters sent to recruiters and headhunters.
Most recruiters and headhunters specialize by industry or job type. For maximum effectiveness, target only headhunters who specialize in your field. Since the best way to contact them is through email, your letter will take the form of an email note accompanying your attached Word-formatted resume. A brief cover letter (or note) is essential to make sure the recruiter opens and reads your resume before storing in an electronic resume storage database. Editor’s note: See also our article, Cover Letters to Recruiters Require Special Handling.
For best results:
- Keep the note short. One or two paragraphs should suffice. Most recruiters are paid on commission and work under heavy production quotas; they don’t have the time or patience for lengthy letters of introduction.
- Your note should read somewhat like a resume summary statement full of keyword qualifications. An example might sound something like, “My background includes 15 years of VP-level management in the telecom industry specializing in start-up of new divisions and building consensus across departments.”
- Don’t end your note with a promise to call. The recruiter will call you when he/she has an available position. As a former headhunter, I can testify that nothing annoys a recruiter more than unsolicited phone calls from job-seekers. To get your relationship with recruiters off to the right start, let them contact you.
Working through headhunters is a numbers game. The more qualified recruiters you contact, the better your chances are of finding great job leads. Don’t minimize your efforts by contacting only those in your geographic area. Recruiters and headhunters who specialize in a given industry usually work nationally and sometimes internationally. Investing in a resume-distribution service that allows you to target recruiters by specialty increases your efforts exponentially.
4. Contacting your professional network. Editor’s note: Quintessential Careers refers to this type of cover letter as the Referral Cover Letter.
Most job-search surveys indicate that a majority of people find jobs through networking — someone they knew told them of a job lead and introduced them to the hiring manager. An effective method of contacting those in your circle of influence is through a special form of written communication called a resu-letter.
The term “resu-letter” may or may not have originated with Jeffrey Fox, author of Don’t Send a Resume, but it’s where I first read of the concept. A resu-letter combines the elements of both a cover letter and a resume. A resu-letter allows a job-seeker to get the word to his or her professional network without sounding desperate to find a new job. This letter is especially nice for those conducting a confidential search while still employed. Usually this letter is send as an email. A hard-copy resu-letter may seem too stiff and formal for networking purposes.
A few pointers on writing a great resu-letter are:
- Keep the tone casual; after all, this letter is sent to people with whom you have a first-name relationship, but be careful not to relax your grammar and spelling.
- This letter should contain all the selling points of your resume without sounding like a commercial.
- Ideally, the recipient will pass your letter on to others who may be interested in your qualifications, so write the letter with other readers in mind.
With competition for good jobs at an all-time high, job-seekers can’t afford to cut corners in their written communication. The extra time and effort taken to customize your cover letters goes a long way toward placing you at the top of the candidate pile.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Deborah Walker is a Certified Career Management Coach. Her expertise includes resume writing and career coaching. She holds membership in the National Resume Writer’s Association. As a former headhunter, her advice comes from an insider’s prospective based on years working with HR professionals and corporate hiring managers. Visit Deb on the Web. Or email her for a free resume critique/price quote at firstname.lastname@example.org.