Cover Letter 101: Why do you need it and how to write a good one
Updated: Nov 20
Cover letter writing is almost as important a skill for a job seeker to learn as resume writing. The cover letter accompanies the resume at all times as the primary support document. Whether you use traditional mail, email, faxing, or another type of electronic submission, this should always be sent with the resume.
There are, of course, other tools you’ll use when job seeking. Your cover letter and resume come first of course, followed by follow-up letters, thank-you letters for after the interview, reference sheets, salary histories, and job acceptance letters. If you have good cover letter writing skills, and good resume writing skills, the other written tools should be a snap to compose.
Goal of Cover Letter
Your goal in this is to get the attention of the hiring manager, just as it is with resume writing. The method and format are a little different however. Your resume will cover all, or most of your professional career, and will be from one to two pages.
Your cover letter will be a very brief page serving as an introduction to the resume. Cover letter writing style must be direct, to the point, and able to grab the attention of the reader quickly, with a goal of making the reader want to read the attached resume.
Many people, when engaged in this type of writing, have a tendency to say too much. Good cover letter writing is short and punchy, and will take two or three key points from the resume and emphasize them. The old adage “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” holds true in both resume writing and cover letter writing.
As an example, let’s assume that you are a materials handling manager for a defense contractor, seeking another position. In your line of work the buzz words are MRP, lean manufacturing, ISO 9000, and cost savings.
Your writing efforts should reflect these buzz words to show your value to your current employer and any future employers. Your resume will go into more detail about how you accomplished these goals. The cover letter will simply point out to the hiring manager that you accomplished them. An example of this would be two bulleted paragraphs in the body of the letter that say….
Experienced in quality assurance and quality control, MRP, ISO 9000, QS 9000, and Lean Manufacturing.
Demonstrated results in saving significant money for employers through cost savings, inventory level reductions, and on-time supplier delivery.
The hiring manager, according to many surveys, devotes only about fifteen seconds to each resume and cover letter he or she reviews. With that in mind your writing skills need to be top notch to get this person to look at your resume. Your resume writing skills need to be just as good to get the reader to want to grant you an interview. In turn, your interviewing skills need to be excellent to get the hiring manager to offer you the position. This long, and hopefully positive chain of events begins with good cover letter writing skills and ends with job satisfaction and a nice paycheck.
Importance of an Outstanding Cover Letter
As mentioned above, hiring manager spends as short as fifteen seconds to each resume and cover letter. This means the decision-maker has probably read X number of cover letters (and resumes) before reaching your set of documents. With that in mind, I never recommend you start the cover letter with the sentence used in so many other letters:
"Pursuant to your recent advertisement in the New York Times for the position of Staff Accountant, I am enclosing my resume for your review."
B-O-R-I-N-G!! Plus, the decision-maker probably just read this same (or very similar) sentence about five dozen times. Remember, you want to GRAB the decision-maker's attention and SELL yourself to them.
Illustration of Writing Cover Letter
Since the cover letter is designed to market you to potential employers, don't state the obvious. If the cover letter does not create a sense of excitement and entice the reader, it is a waste of your time for writing it and a waste of time for the reader reading it.
Keep track of how many times you use the words "I" and/or "my". After you write the letter, take a pen and circle all the I's and my's in the letter: more than five? Time to re-write some of the sentences.
Here's an illustration of how to do that: instead of writing "I am looking for an opportunity for advancement with a new employer. My background is in retail management and I feel well-qualified for the Store Manager position with your company" you can write, "A background in retail management and proven record of obtaining results as a Store Manager are key elements in qualifying me for consideration as part of your team."
Remember the PURPOSE of the cover letter: to highlight your background in the right light, sell your skills, and show the potential employer you are worthy of an interview. Explaining what you WANT throughout the letter doesn't tell the reader the BENEFIT of what you can offer, which is imperative for you to be successful.
One of the techniques I like to use in cover letters is to pull out the top 4 or 5 achievements and mention them in bullet form with the letter. It serves as a wonderful focus point for readers' eyes and draws their attention immediately to your strengths. Here's a brief highlight in what would naturally be a longer cover letter:
...Recognized as a top-performer and dedicated professional, my record of achievements include: · Generating a 58% increase in new business during tenure as Regional Advertising Manager · Boosting client media coverage 50% and developing partnerships with previously unsecured media contacts
There are many ways to say things but, as you can see, some words have a stronger impact on readers than others. In cover letters, e-resumes, and traditional resumes, you can change the reader's perception in a heartbeat by substituting various words or phrases for more traditional (and outdated) verbiage. See the outline below:
Set up entire department from scratch
Worked closely with department heads
Helped produce $3 million in sales
Helped new employees
In-depth knowledge of capital markets and corporate finance
Assisted marketing department in strategies and bids
Reduced expenses by 10%
Established department from inception through successful operation
Fostered relationships with department heads
Instrumental in generating $3 million in sales
Aided new employees
Expertise in capital markets and corporate finance
Actively participated in formulating marketing strategies
Slashed (or cut) expenses by 10%
In short, aggressive writing makes you SIZZLE, while passive writing tells your "story." Remember your goal is to effectively market yourself, not to author your employment biography.
In short, cover letter should be precise and concise to pinpoint why you are suitable to the job. To answer this question in your cover letter, you need to pick all of your relevant experiences stated in your resume. It’s not difficult, but all you need to know is the approach on how to do it.
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