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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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Comment Preferences

  •  All your base are belong to us (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, Lujane

    Republican tears sustain me.

    by orson on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 06:48:28 PM PDT

  •  spent the day reading CVs/cover letters (7+ / 0-)

    for a search committee assignment today.  And yes, the cover letters mattered to me.  It gave me an example of the candidate's writing ability, for one thing, and also a sense of their style.  As you've pointed out, those who mirrored the language in the ad jumped out at me over those that were a summary of the candidate's life story and wishes for advancement and challenge.

    Thanks for this diary series.  It's interesting and useful. :-)

  •  I love this series. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Redfire, MRA NY, Lujane, cassandracarolina

    It's a bad day to try to push substance onto the rec list -- but I hope this gets noticed by the community spotlight.

    Families is where a nation finds hope, where wings take dream.

    by cardinal on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 07:23:59 PM PDT

  •  I can't see some of the links in Google Docs (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lujane, keirdubois

    I work with B2B PAC, and all views and opinions in this account are my own.

    by slinkerwink on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 07:36:16 PM PDT

  •  This is interesting, but I strongly disagree (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    debedb, anyname

    with most of it.

    NEVER look at templates. DON'T use words from others.

    A transmittal letter for a resume should never be more than four sentences long.

    And it should be honest.  And it should be to the point.

    THAT is what you need to know.

    I think this diary, although based on lots of experience, tremendously overcomplicates things.

    I write as somebody who NEVER failed to get an interview from a resume submission, back in the dark ages when I was hoping to get employed by somebody else.

    It is a calling...to do things about injustice.... It helps to have a goal. I've always tried to have one.--Ted Kennedy, True Compass

    by Timaeus on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 08:26:23 PM PDT

    •  Don't use words from others? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cassandracarolina, mali muso

      I think using their words is exactly what you need to do.  If you normally describe yourself as Detail Oriented but the ad asks for someone who is Methodical go ahead and use the word Methodical.  They will use words they are comfortable with so if you use their words they will be comfortable with you.

      Don't lie just to use their exact search criteria, but if you sprinkle in the key words it will help you get noticed.  I know that our company generally has a list of keywords that they search for in the resume.  Lazy managers decide on interviews simply by how many words match.  More dedicated managers use the list as a tiebreaker after they have made other considerations.  But all managers look for the words that they used in the posting.

      www.dailykos.com is America's Blog of Record

      by WI Deadhead on Fri Jul 08, 2011 at 03:00:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks for a different point of view, Timaeus (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      cassandracarolina, mali muso

      However, I'm not recommending looking at templates.  I'm recommending using language directly from the ad--wrapping it around one's own qualifications, so to speak--to attract the attention of the reviewer.

      It seems to me that a transmittal letter that says, "Here's my resume" is unnecessary.  A cover letter that continues to "sell" the applicant, however, is one more opportunity to get noticed.

      "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

      by Diana in NoVa on Fri Jul 08, 2011 at 03:38:29 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great stuff - I missed the first two, but am going (4+ / 0-)

    to check them out.  I've been sending resumes everywhere for some time now and they are not doing their job!  

    I know my resume needs a revamp, so I really appreciate you sharing your insights here.

    tipped, recced, hotlisted

    "Don't Bet Against Us" - President Barack Obama

    by MRA NY on Thu Jul 07, 2011 at 08:29:01 PM PDT

  •  Can't look at the doc's . . . (0+ / 0-)
  •  Sick of the mysteries... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    WI Deadhead, mali muso

    Honest to God...

    I've spent the last month doing a dozen applications for full-time teaching positions at Community Colleges all over America.

    They are almost all now done on computer systems where you download your documents and can follow your progress in the hiring process.

    I'm checking my progress regularly and see, "Interview Phase" but I'm not getting any calls or letters.  So, I write to Human Resources and tell them, "If you don't mind, I need to let my current employer know if I'm going to be here for the Fall Semester and I notice that your "Interview Phase" seems not to have changed for two weeks.  Can you let me know if I am on the short list?

    Wrote to 3 or 4 people in Human Resources.  Nothing...no response.  Totally unprofessional bullshit over and over again.

    It's July 8 and class start in a little more than a month, but they can't even tell me if I'm on the short list.

    •  I just had one of my Fall CC classes (0+ / 0-)

      canceled*. This is what the notice stated:

      This cancellation is a result of the dire budget status of both *** College and the State of California. At this point, we are unable to project if this class will be offered in the Spring of 2012.

      So, there's a chance your interviews on are hold while they wrangle with budget cuts. Hope things look up and you're rushing around soon preparing for classes.

      * just a note, I was surprised this class was canceled as it was Web/Programing based (I'm in the Bay Area, kinda vital around here), and, so far, not my pottery class. So much for brushing up on work skills :} at least I, so far, get to throw clay!

  •  Apologies for the docs not being visible (0+ / 0-)

    When I checked it, it let me see them, but I suppose that's because I'm the author.  If someone can tell me how to fix this, I'll certainly do it.  Thanks!

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Jul 08, 2011 at 03:35:02 AM PDT

  •  Figured out how to make the links public (0+ / 0-)

    Or rather, available to anyone with the link.  This was my first time doing links--sorry for the inconvenience.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Fri Jul 08, 2011 at 03:44:56 AM PDT

  •  Great series... very concise and usefull. (0+ / 0-)

    I'm responding to a lot of positions via Craigslist, and I've just composed a cover letter with some HTML formatting - just to get noticed.

    It's done in email "newsletter" style - basically a table with in-line css formatting - but it looks like a letter with on buff colored paper with a grainy paper pattern in a compatible accent color in the margins.

    There's a jpeg image block for the letterhead and another one for my signature block. All the image files are accessed from my website, if the mail client is set to "display remote content". If not, they fall back to well-formatted alternate text.

    I've sent test copies to as many different mail clients as I can think of, and it looks pretty good. But I'm still wary of sending it to an actual employer.

    I'm seeking technical graphics work, so a little pizzazz seems appropriate. But do you think the benefits are worth the risk of a mail client's failure to render the page properly?

    Have you noticed?
    Politicians who promise LESS government
    only deliver BAD government.

    by jjohnjj on Fri Jul 15, 2011 at 11:32:00 AM PDT

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