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“Does anyone even care about cover letters these days?” may be the first question that pops into your mind. After all, nowadays a lot of companies want you to visit their Web site and simply upload your resume. They may not even require a cover letter.

Although I firmly believe that a resume should be so well constructed that it can stand on its own, there are still occasions when you may need to write a cover letter.

For one thing, if the company requests one, it’s best to comply. And there are times when, even if the company doesn’t request a cover letter, you may want to write one anyway. You could put it in the body of your submission e-mail rather than attach it as a separate file. The reviewer or recruiter would hardly be able to avoid reading the e-mail, whereas he or she might ignore an attachment with the filename “coverltr.”

A cover letter can be a great selling tool, so I’m going to give you a couple of tips that will get your next cover letter and its accompanying resume into the “A” pile.

We’ve talked about the First Step in Writing Your Resume—Filling Out the Interview Formand Writing a Resume That’ll Make You Look Good. The finishing touch to this process is the cover letter. The one-page cover letter, as opposed to the two-page marketing letter I’ll discuss in a future diary, represents an additional chance to sell your qualifications.

The biggest mistake I’ve seen in cover letters can be summed up in two words:  “I” disease.  In a moment I’ll give you an example of an “I-diseased” cover letter, but first let’s discuss why this type of letter is a bad idea.

Consider the detergent manufacturer:  Does his commercial say, “Oh, please, PLEASE buy my detergent!  My wife wants a diamond bracelet from Tiffany’s; my son wants a red Lamborghini; my daughter wants to go to finishing school in Switzerland!  PLEASE buy my detergent and make me RICH so I can afford all these things!”

No!  What his commercial says is:  “If YOU buy my detergent, YOUR wash will be whiter and brighter.”

The detergent manufacturer puts everything in terms of “you” and promises you a benefit.

The second most common mistake in cover letters is insufficient correlation of applicant qualifications to the qualifications requested by the advertisement. By this I mean that the cover letter is simply a letter of transmittal, not a selling job, as in:  “Dear Mr. Thistle, I am writing in response to your ad for a Linux programmer.  Enclosed please find my resume.  Don’t hesitate to call me if you require further information.” Or the cover letter takes the opposite tack, repeating the resume almost verbatim.

Your cover letter should put everything in terms of you, and promise a benefit. Or even several benefits.

When you look at an ad, start comparing the language in the ad to the content of your resume.  What do you see in your resume that answers the needs stated in the ad?  After you’ve identified several statements, you’ll be ready to start writing the cover letter.

It’s important to use the same language in your cover letter as the language in the ad. I can’t emphasize this enough: use the same phrases and words the ad uses.  The recruiter or reviewer is not going to think, “Oh, my God, what a hopeless copycat this person is!  I want nothing to do with him or her.”

No, what the recruiter is going to think when he reads your cover letter is, “Oh, my God!  Here’s someone who understands exactly what I’m looking for!”

Remember, even a first-level resume reviewer (often a junior person in HR) has been provided a list of key words and phrases to look for.  So make sure they’re there.

Your resume may not contain content that matches every single point stated in the ad.  Don’t worry about that.  I’m assuming that you’ve got the major things covered.  

Another point:  if you’re looking for a job as a graphic designer and answering an ad that calls for a technical illustrator because you know you have the qualifications for that type of work, then change the objective on your resume to read: “….a position as technical illustrator.”  I recommend changing the objective to match the ad’s terminology every time you answer an ad.  Different companies have different terms for what is essentially the same job. Looking like a “perfect fit” from square one is always desirable.

There’s really no excuse for having a generic objective rather than a specific one to match the ad in these days of e-mail and paperless resumes. In the old days, when one had to fork out cash to print 100 resumes at a time on good paper, that would have been permissible. But not now.

All right. Please look at the example resume at this link. The applicant wants a position as graphic designer.

Now, please look at the example ad. This is the ad that applicant answered for a position in the design field.

Now we’re going to consider the language of this applicant’s cover letter.  Remember the detergent manufacturer?  Please look at this example of a bad cover letter.  You see how it’s all put in terms of what the applicant, as opposed to the potential employer, wants?

First of all, the potential employer knows what you want.  You want a job!  It’s a matter of the utmost urgency to you. So there’s no need to tell him or her that you want a job that “utilizes all of your skills and abilities and provides a path for advancement.”  What does he care?  He wants to know what you’re going to do for him.

So let’s redo that cover letter by putting everything in terms of “you” and promising benefits. And let’s be sure to repeat the language used in the ad.  Here’s an example of a good cover letter.
Do you see how often the word “you” is used?  Does this make a better impression than the word “I”?  There will be times when use of the word “I” is unavoidable, but try to use it as little as possible.

And do you see how the language from the ad is wrapped around the applicant’s qualifications from the resume?

Also please note the final paragraph says “You may contact me” rather than “don’t hesitate to contact me.”  Just as it’s better to tell a caller, “Thank you for waiting while I looked up that information for you,” so it’s better to say “please feel free” rather than “don’t hesitate.” Why use negative language when it’s so easy to avoid?

Finally, “Very truly yours” has long been the standard close for business letters. I use it not only for that reason, but also because it’s another opportunity to incorporate the word “you.”

To summarize, writing a “you-oriented” cover letter and wrapping your qualifications in the language used in the ad will get your cover letter and your accompanying resume the attention they deserve.

One further note:  often, an advertisement will not contain a name, or will contain only an initial and a surname. In the latter case you have no choice but to address your cover letter to:  Initial Surname, as even the gender of the recipient is a mystery.

You could also address your letter to “To Whom It May Concern.”  If this is too 19th-century for you, however, you could put the company name and address block under the date, as usual, and then simply write “Re: Position for (whatever it is) advertised on (whatever the Web site is) on day-month-year.”

The next diary in this series will discuss the one-page qualifications brief:  what should it contain and when should you use it?

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