by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., and Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
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. Few employers seriously consider a resume that is not accompanied by a cover letter; thus, a dynamically written cover letter needs to be part of your job-search strategy.
Why is a cover letter so important? A resume is useless to an employer if he or she doesn't know what kind of work you want to do. A cover letter tells the employer the type of position you're seeking -- and exactly how you are qualified for that position.
A cover letter highlights the aspects of your experience that are most useful to the potential employer, and you can earn points for knowing what those aspects are. Employers get hundreds of resumes, especially when they advertise a choice position. Employers are also very busy. Often the person screening resumes skims each for only a few seconds. Your cover letter can call attention to the skills, talents, and experience the employer is looking for
Your letter can explain things that your resume can't. If you have large gaps in your employment history or you are reentering the job market or changing the focus of your career, a cover letter can explain these circumstances in a positive way.
A cover letter can serve the same function as the "job objective" on your resume, and expand upon it. Some applicants are reluctant to limit themselves by putting an objective on their resume. Although it is best for a job-seeker to target the type of work desired as specifically as possible, you may be open to more than one option.
Finally, a cover letter is a little window into your personality. A good cover letter can suggest to an employer, "I'd like to interview this person; she sounds like someone I'd like to get to know better. This seems like just the kind of dynamic person this company needs."
Three Kinds of Cover Letters
There are roughly three kinds of cover letters, each corresponding to a different method of job-hunting. Most successful job-seekers will find that they do not employ any one method or use any one kind of cover letter, but rather a combination of all three. To understand the three kinds of cover letters, it is helpful to look at these three types of job searches.
Only about one-fifth of the job market is what we call "open." That means that at most only about 20 percent of job openings are ever publicly known. The main avenue for informing the public about these openings is through job posting ads on various Websites as well as want ads in the newspaper, trade magazines, and other publications. Employment agencies and executive-search firms are another source of open-market positions. The first kind of cover letter is the invited letter, which is generally a response to a want ad or job ad -- whether in print or online.
The invited cover letter enables you to speak to the requirements of the ad. You can offer the employer the requirements sought because you know the requirements sought; it's all spelled out in the ad.
The other four-fifths of the market is "closed," meaning you can't find out about the positions unless you dig. That digging most often takes the form of compiling a list of all the companies in your field that you might be interested in working for and contacting them to ask for an interview. Obviously, that means some job-seekers will send out a great many resumes, accompanied by the type of cover letter that we call the uninvited or cold-contact prospecting letter, sometimes blanketing a given field of companies with direct-mail packages. This job-search tool can be very effective, especially if you have a specific set of companies you wish to work for or are looking to work in a specific geographic location.
[Editor's Note: Read more aboout breaking into this closed job market in our article, Tapping Into the Hidden Job Market: Uncovering Unpublicized Job Leads.]
The uninvited prospecting cover letter enables you to take a proactive approach to job-hunting instead of the reactive approach, in which you merely answer ads. It can be a great tool for uncovering hidden jobs where supposedly no openings exist. Your letter can make such an impression that you'll be remembered as soon as a vacancy opens up. You may also be able to create an opening for yourself by convincing the employer that the company needs someone with your talents. At the very least, you may obtain an interview in which the employer can refer you to others in the field who might have use for you.
Whenever possible, any cover letter should be sent to a named individual, and with the uninvited letter, this advice is especially true. The largest employer in Central Florida, for instance, throws away any letter that does not address him by name. If you want to get an interview and hence a job, you can forget about using such salutations as "Dear Sir or Madam," "Gentlemen," "Dear Human Resources Director," or "To Whom it May Concern." Those salutations tell the employer that you were not concerned enough to find out whom it concerns.
The successful job-seeker will persist in following up on the interviews he or she asks for, even when the employer says there are no openings. Will the employer be annoyed with you for persisting in seeking an interview? Probably not -- employers admire drive and ambition. Your persistence means you truly want to work for that company. When we were hiring, the "squeaky wheel gets the grease" approach worked on us almost every time -- just make sure you don't overdo it and end up annoying the employer.
The third kind of cover letter is a very close cousin to the uninvited letter. This letter, too, is uninvited but it has an edge. It prominently displays the name of a person your addressee knows. We call this kind of cover letter the referral letter. Referral letters are the product of networking, which many experts say is the most effective method of job-hunting. In its simplest form, networking involves using everyone you know as a resource to finding a new job.
Referral letters can come about from a variety of sources. You might talk with someone at a meeting of a trade association in your field who will tell you of an opening she knows of. An acquaintance at a party might tell you of someone he knows whose company could use an employee with your experience. A friend might tell you about a job she saw through her company's internal job-posting.
The value of the referral letter is in its name-dropping. If you can grab the potential employer's attention by mentioning someone he knows and respects in the first line of the letter, you will have gained a terrific advantage over the competition. Some variations on the referral letter include approaches like these:
- "John Ross of Technology Unlimited suggested you might have openings for systems analysts."
"I met with Mary Jones last week, and she mentioned that you might have need for someone with a background in book marketing."
"My adviser, Claude Brachfeld, never misses an opportunity to tell me of your innovations in the superconductivity field."
It would be a rare employer who would fail to interview an applicant with such an edge.
Remember that a cover letter is perhaps the most important part of a direct-mail sales package. The product is you. As with any other sales letter, you are trying to motivate a specific action. You want that employer to call and invite you for an interview. A dynamic cover letter can attract the employer's attention and arouse interest.
Note: This article is excerpted from the 3rd edition of Dynamic Cover Letters (Ten Speed Press).
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.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
For other cover letter tips, see this section of Quintessential Careers: Cover Letter Do's and Don'ts.
And don't forget to follow this link to see some examples of dynamic cover letters.
Go back to the Cover Letter Resources for Job-Seekers section of Quintessential Careers, where you will find a collection of the best cover letter tools and resources, including articles, tutorials, and more.
Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of The Quintessential Careers Content Index, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, quizzes, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.