The name “Cover Letter” implies a short explanatory note attached to a main, or at least more important document. In my contract management days, I would send contractual documents to my suppliers with a “transmittal letter”, that in very few words said what I was sending and what I needed them to do with it. Many people do the same with their resumes, which for the reader, is pretty much a waste of time. The cover letter for a resume can be just as important and influential as the resume. You can think about the cover letter and resume as a team delivering a “one-two punch”. Here is how they work:
Your Resume is an impassionate, mechanistic and highly-structure recitation of the relevant facts of your experience. Its focus is entirely about YOU. If your resume is written correctly, the reader will have a very clear picture of what your have done in the past, and of what you are capable of, but will have almost no information about your personality. So while the resume will tell the reader about your skills, it leaves out (on purpose) information about your communication skills. It also (except in a subtle way) does not attempt to sell the job candidate as a good fit for any particular job, even if you have customized your resume for a particular job.
Your Cover Letter should have a slightly different purpose. It is still attempting to convince the reader to invite you for an interview, but will do it by emphasizing the needs of the company you are applying to work for, and in so doing showcases your written communication skills, maturity, and business-savvy. How does it do that? By talking about what the reader needs and what you have to offer that will satisfy those needs. In other words, the focus of cover letter is about THEM. The purpose of the cover letter is make the case as to why you think you are a good fit for the organization. Sounds tough? It is! A good cover letter requires at least as much time, and in my opinion, more skill to write than a resume. But a great cover letter with a good resume can DOUBLE your chances to get invited for an interview.
Okay, I’m Sold. How do I Write a “Good” Cover Letter?
The first, and most critical step in writing a good cover letter is to get as much information information about the company, organization, department & job you are applying for. Company information is pretty easy to get, particularly if a company is “public” and trades its stock publically. Finding out about a particular job, or hiring department is much more difficult, but not completely impossible. Here are some ideas:
- Check with your college campus career center (even if you have already graduated; most campuses allow alumni to use their career services) about informational sessions that companies may be having on campus. This is perhaps the easiest way to get the “inside scoop” on a particular job opportunity.
- Company websites will have “investor relations” links that will give you access to their latest SEC filings. These filings often include announcements about new business or challenges that can give you insight into why a firm is hiring for a particular position.
- Search CNN “Money” for current news about a company
- Look on a company’s website at ALL of the job listings to see if there is a pattern in their current hiring. For example, if all of the tech openings are for web developers, you can guess they are either upgrading their IT infrastructure or planning to launch a major on-line presence.
- Try to find a community or professional organization that employees are likely to work at. For example, Microphone is a great place to find out about any particular job at Microsoft. A local .net user group might put you in a touch with employees at other local companies
- Contact your school’s alumni association and see if you can get the name of a current employee of the company you want to apply at.
- Contact a firm’s HR department and see what they can tell you.
- Talk to a recruiter. They make have insight into what is happening at a particular firm.
The next step is to brainstorm a little on some paper and list all the ways in which you think you are a good fit, and how you can help the organization. I suggest doing this using an Excel spreadsheet, with each reason on its own line.
Next rank-order each reason by putting a number “one” to the right of the most compelling reason why they need you, and “two” by the next, etc. Then sort your list. The first three or four are the ones you are going to want to mention in your cover letter.
Now comes the hard part. Start writing your letter. Here is the order I suggest:
- Introduce yourself and mention the job you are applying for.
- Talk about the key facts that you’ve learned about the company and what excites you about working for them
- Mention your two or three top reasons and why you believe you are a good fit for their company
- Ask for an interview, mention your resume has additional information.
Write and rewrite. Have other people proof-read your letter. College campus career centers are great for proofing. Use good quality white paper with a laserjet printer. Do not use anything other than the very best inkjet printers. If someone can tell you used an inkjet, then don’t use an inkjet.
Can you give me an example?
Here is a sample letter that I might have written for my current position at Microsoft (more about why I didn’t in a minute) that contains all the elements of a great cover letter. That’s not to say that it couldn’t benefit from some editing, but you’ll see why it is more than a transmittal letter. I’ll admit it might be border-line cheesy, but probably not as much as you might think at a first read. And while it might seem to talk a lot about me at first, its all about applying what I’ve done to what my boss is/was looking for. Its all an appeal to what Martin is interested in finding in a job candidate. Even if I’ve missed his top concern, I’m certainly in the ball park, and a letter like this is definitely going to get you in the “short pile” of potential interview candidates.
Does this still sound a bit too vague?
Probably the easiest way to get started with your letter is to look at several examples. There are a lot of books out there on resume writing and cover letters that have some good examples. There are also some that are really bad. How can you tell the difference? Look for examples that seem to be following these guidelines and you’ll be safe. Here are two that I liked: “Cover Letter Magic: Trade Secrets of Professional Resume Writers”, and “Dynamic Cover Letters Revised”. Each of these books have lots of examples that will really kick-start your writing. Each one costs under $12 on Amazon.com, so my recommendation is to just suck it up and buy them. Short on $$ ? Try your local library. That is where I found them the first time.
So Why Didn’t You Write a Cover Letter When You Applied at Microsoft?
I didn’t formally apply for my Microsoft job at first. My local Microsoft rep told me about a job opening in his organization, and offered to give my resume to his manager. So my friend (and now colleague) was my cover letter. A recruiter often acts in the same capacity. I had already been informally invited for an interview when I was asked to formally apply for the job so HR could schedule the interview. By then, the cover letter was unnecessary.
So When IS a Cover Letter a Good Idea?
A cover letter is a good idea any time someone who hasn’t talked to you or met you will be reading your resume. As you can see from my example, there really isn’t any such thing as a generic cover letter, although if you are applying for the same job with more than one company, there are certainly parts you can reuse.
Some Closing Thoughts
A well written cover letter is almost as good as a resume for getting you a job interview. The best example I’ve every heard of a great cover letter was someone who was invited for an interview without the reader every looking at the resume. Together with a good resume, a great cover letter hugely increases your chances of getting the interview invitation. Yes they are a lot of work, but if writing them means that 50% more of the places that you apply at will invite you for an interview, then its probably a matter of quality vs. quantity.