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Covering Cover Letters
By Sue Campbell, 1st-Writer.com
Sue Campbell has over 15 years experience as a professional resume writer and career management specialist - helping clients achieve their career, business and marketing goals.

Why A Cover Letter is More Than Just A Dust Jacket

"Do I really need a cover letter?" I'm asked this question a few times every month. I get the impression people are hoping I'll say, "No! You don't need a cover letter! Your resume is great alone!"

After putting so much time and effort into a resume, it's easy to understand why someone might think a cover letter is nothing more than a "dust jacket." Just one more piece of paper delaying the reader's ability to get to the good stuff. What do most cover letters say, after all, but, "You've got a job. I've got a resume. Hope to hear from you soon!"

Yet the cover letter is more than just a way to dress up your resume. It has a genuine and important purpose.

While your resume will hopefully give the reader a sense of your “fit” for the types of positions and companies you’re targeting, the cover letter acts as an introduction to why you want to work for this particular company, why you are the perfect candidate for this job at this company at this time.

Instead of saying, “You’ve got a job. I’ve got a resume,” it says, “You’ve got a job and I’m the perfect person to hire to do it. Here’s why…”

If written well, your cover letter will encourage your reader to turn to your resume with real interest and an assurance that the time and effort will be well spent. It can be a deciding factor between two otherwise equally qualified candidates.

Pretty powerful for just a “dust jacket,” huh?

What the Cover Letter Does that the Resume Doesn't Do

While your cover letter acts as an introduction, it can also take your resume information one step further by showing your reader how your history and past achievements can be applied to meet the unique needs, concerns, missions, and goals of the company you're targeting.

In this way, your cover letter not only confirms your qualifications for the position, but also indicates that you are the right person for this particular company.

In order to present your qualifications in a meaningful way to a specific reader, you need to do some homework on the company you're targeting and learn all you can about who they are, what they care about, what they're trying to achieve, who makes up their customer base or target market, what they’re known for (products / services), what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, who makes up their competition, and how well they're achieving their intended goals (how well are they doing?).

Knowing this information will not only help you identify ways in which your skills can be directly applied for the company's benefit, but can also help you determine whether or not this is a company you want to pursue. Is this company a good fit for you?

Finding out information about companies may be easier than you realize. Much of this information is available through public records (check online, as well as your largest local library). Corporate websites reveal a wealth of information, particularly if you look at it from an investors, rather than a shopper’s point-of-view. Go to the bottom of the page and look for the small print.

How a company markets itself through its website will tell you a good deal about how the company perceives itself (or how it would like you to perceive it). The way a company operates, who comprises its customers base or target market, its philosophies (what kind of message it's trying to convey to its target audience) and what it believes sets it apart from the competition is usually all there for your perusal.

One caveat, however: don’t do this research on your current employer’s computer.

Also, use search engines to research any additional or outside information available on the company (such as newspaper articles, press releases, etc.).

Think about how your skills, background and personal characteristics (personality and personal beliefs) fit into the type of environment portrayed by the company. Look at the key players – what do their executive biographies tell you? What characteristics do they have in common.

For example, my business website (www.1st-Writer.com) is written and presented in a style that is low key and friendly. Heck, I have tennis shoes dancing all over the place. My website is intended to draw in the very type of client with whom I work best. And it does a very good job of it, because I get to work with the best clients in the world. My website was designed with this purpose in mind. If you like what you see, then you’ll probably enjoy working with me. Trust me, if the style and message of a particular company’s website appeals to you, chances are it’s going to be a very good fit for you.

Your local library is another great resource. Tell the Librarian what you're trying to achieve and you may be surprised by the number of resources available. A few resource guides worth mentioning include the Corporate Jobs Outlook, Corporate Technology Directory, Directory of Corporate Affiliations, Directory of Leading Private Companies, and The Almanac of American Employers.

Doing a search on the library computer may turn up additional articles, press releases, or annual reports, all great indicators of what a company is trying to achieve and how well it’s doing.

While complete your research, you may discover an area where your particular skills or background would make a substantial difference in the way a particular company meets its objectives. Nothing will advance your opportunities faster than an ability to help a company make more money, reduce costs, increase its productivity, build its client base, beat out its competition, etc. - just be very careful in how you present any perceived “flaws.”

No one wants to hear their company isn’t at the top of its game or that they’re not doing a terrific job. However, smart leaders and smart managers want problem-solvers who can improve the bottom line while fitting in with the company culture, environment or team.

A good hiring manager wants to hear, "I have some ideas that could really make this particular effort fly, and I'd like to talk with you about them." Knowing that you have something valuable to offer is a great incentive for a recruiter or hiring manager to meet you in person to learn more (the interview).

Once you have a solid understanding of your target, you need to identify how your skills, experience, education, achievements, and personal and professional characteristics fit the needs and goals of the particular company.

Remember, this was all about a cover letter…

Where in my Cover Letter or Résumé Should I State What I'm Hoping to Gain from Employment?Sue Campbell has over 15 years experience as a professional resume writer and career management specialist - helping clients achieve their career, business and marketing goals.

No where.

Forget the “chance for advancement” statements or other mistakes that cover letter and resume writers make. Forget all about what you’re hoping to gain from the experience. The simple truth is, at this stage of the game, your reader doesn't care what you want or what you're hoping to achieve. He or she only wants to know what you have to contribute and how he or she will benefit from it.

To be effective, to achieve your goal of an interview, your focus in the cover letter needs to remain on what you have to offer and how what you have to offer will benefit this particular job at this particular company. Negotiating how this job may benefit you will come later.

You want your reader to act (hopefully by calling you to discuss the position and establish a time for an interview). You want the reader to think, “I need to meet this person.”

Later, during the interview phase, you'll have an opportunity to address how the position can meet your needs.

The Two Types Of Cover Letters

There are basically two types of effective cover letters: the position-specific cover letter (or “standard” cover letter), and the broadcast cover letter.

The position-specific or “standard” cover is used in submission to an ad or known job opening. This type of cover letter is easier to write because: 1) most of the criteria is readily available to you through the source (job ad or referral), giving you the basic material you’ll need to customize your cover letter effectively, and 2) you know the reader is looking for qualified candidates (your submission will be, at least initially, welcomed).

The second kind of cover letter is commonly called a "broadcast" cover letter. This type of cover letter is used when you want to target a company of interest but where no known job opening exists. Although some companies frown on unsolicited resume submissions, many position openings go unannounced to the general public.

Using a broadcast cover letter is one tool in accessing the "hidden job market." Waiting for a position to be advertised simply assures that your resume will be placed in competition with hundreds of other eager, possibly equally qualified candidates. See more on broadcast cover letters.

The Basic Elements of the Cover Letter

The layout of your cover letter is as important as the layout of your resume. Keep in mind that the first impression your reader will have of you will be your cover letter (okay, it's actually the second thing they'll see, followed by your envelope – and I recommend using a 9x12 white envelope to mail your documents so there are no creases).

Your cover letter should complement your resume in style, layout, letterhead, print and paper quality. It shouldn't look like it was simply an “add-on” or afterthought. The cover letter is an integral part of your entire presentation. Make it a professional complement to the other documents in your job search arsenal (resume, references, job hunting business card, etc.).

Cover letters normally follow this general outline:

  • Your contact information (letterhead): Make sure your contact information is easy to read and reference by using a font size no smaller than 11 pts. in Times New Roman, 9 in Arial, or 8.5 in Verdana. When all is said and done, how to contact you is the most important information in your cover letter.

  • Date: It's important to give your reader a submission date, indicating that the information is timely and relevant.

  • Name of recipient and his or her title: Get the exact name and correct spelling whenever you can. It will have a much greater impact than an anonymous recipient greeting. People like reading and hearing their own names, and they like them spelled and pronounced correctly. Take the time to do it right.

  • Company name, street address, city, state, and zip code.

What if you don’t know the company name? What if it’s a blind ad? If the ad contains a fax number you may be to identify the company by using a reverse look-up service, but keep in mind that the company may not be happy with your discovery effort. If you’re currently employed, this can be a bit disconcerting – you don’t want to submit a résumé to a company that turns out to be your current employer.

  • Job title or reference number, or both: Re: VP of Marketing / #4509VPM.

  • The Salutation: Use either exact contact name, "Dear Mr./Ms. _____," or use "Director of Human Resources for Name of Company" when you don’t know the recipient’s name. Never use "Dear Sir or Madam," or, worse, "To Whom It May Concern," or your letter will end up looking and sounding like a form letter.

  • Opening paragraph: Although you may be tempted to come up with an interesting opening sentence, there's value for your reader in identifying for them the ad or position for which you're applying. Your reader may be screening resumes for several positions, and including a reference to the position title and location puts the reader on the right track. Keep this introductory sentence to the point and brief.

The second line in your first paragraph should be attention grabbing, but avoid gimmicks. Although you're trying to "sell" your qualifications, you don't want to come across as an advertisement. A brief, targeted summary sentence works very well:

"My background in ________________, _____________, and _____________ appears to be a solid fit for the position of _________.”

Or “It is with genuine interest that I enclose my résumé for your review and offer a brief summary of how my skills may benefit {Name of Company}'s _______ efforts."

  • The second paragraph: highlights not only those qualifications listed in your résumé that match the criteria of the job (information usually found via a job ad, recruiter or company research), but also focuses your skills and characteristics to the specific position you’re targeting by including “value added” statements; skill requirements not addressed in the ad, but those you possess which  you know will have a valuable impact on the position.

This second paragraph addresses the particular needs, concerns, missions and goals of the company (as you know them), and how your potential contribution will benefit and promote these goals (from the company's point of view).

This is where you establish what sets you apart from the competition and answers the question “why I am the best candidate for this particular job at this particular company.”

Ultimately, you want your reader to be able to envision you working for their company and producing valuable results.

  • Closing paragraph: This is the only place in the cover letter where you indicate what you're hoping to gain from this submission (not from the job, but from the submission of your resume): a call and an interview.

Don’t forget to thank your reader for their time and consideration, after all, they made it this far.

While you’re sending out these great cover letters and resumes, make sure your voice mail and answering machine greetings are professional. No cute greetings while you’re job hunting. No background noise. Simply offer the appropriate identification information, and be brief. The following works very well:

"You have reached Joe Smith. I'm sorry I'm unable to take your call at this time, but your call is very important to me. Please leave your name, number and a brief message, and I will return your call as soon as possible. Thank you for calling."

For “Salary Requirements” and “Salary History” see Salary

What to Do After the Cover Letter and Resume Have Been Sent

It would be wonderful if every resume and cover letter submission resulted in an immediate positive response. Unfortunately, we live in a real world of busy people, and right now it’s a employers’ market. They have a lot of qualified candidates from which to choose, and smart companies are reaping the rewards of a tough market by hiring the best of the best.

To remain competitive, be proactive in your job search. Be willing to follow up your resume submissions with a phone call, an e-mail or a letter that reiterates your interest in the position and company and offers to provide further information if needed.

Your reader may receive hundreds of resumes, and hearing from you may move your resume closer to the top of the pile. A good time frame to follow is two weeks. If you’re keeping track of all your submissions (dates, contact name, job title, etc.) you should be able to accomplish follow-up phone calls and letters effectively within that two-week time frame.

Finally, never stop job hunting even when you believe you’ve found and submitted your cover letter and resume for the “perfect job.” Until a job offer has been placed on the table and accepted, the job hunt is still on… and sometimes it’s not a bad idea to keep the job hunt going even after a job has been accepted. Knowing what’s out there and what’s available at any given moment is the best way to continue captaining your own ship.

Sue Campbell, President of 1st-Writer.com, is a professional resume writer, career strategist and marketing specialist with over 18 years experience. Sue provides powerful resumes and career strategies for thousands of clients throughout the United States and over 47 countries overseas. Through her personalized and focused services, Sue helps job seekers of every level achieve their career and business goals.

Should I Hire a Professional Resume Writer?  /  1st-Writer.com Services

See more articles on job hunting

Good luck in your job search! Sue Campbell, 1st-Writer.com - over 18 years experience helping clients achieve their career and business goals. Feel free to e-mail me with any questions you may have. I'll be glad to help!


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This page last updated: 09/05/2013