Customize Each Cover Letter You Send Or Don't Send One At All

by Handlin, Liz Wednesday, May 19, 2010
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One of the services I offer is cover letter writing. Many clients contact me and ask me to write both a resume and cover letter. I always tell them the same thing: I am happy to write a resume but let's wait until you are applying for a specific job or to a specific company to write that cover letter. Part of the reason for that is that the way I write cover letters is very customized. I need to learn about the person I am writing the cover letter for before I can create a really top notch document. The resume writing process usually offers me enough information to create a great cover letter but I still think its best to wait until you have some idea what job you are applying for before I write the cover letter for you.

When you write a cover letter here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Outline reasons you are interested in applying to the company.
Use the company website as well as Google and LinkedIn to search for information about the company and its employees. Specifically look for information that you find compelling and that somehow ties into your background or experience. Let's say that you earned a B.A. in Environmental Affairs but you are currently working in Government Affairs for an oil company. Find out about your target employer's Legislative/Government Affairs team - do they have one? If they do, what are the key issues facing the company? If they don't have a legislative affairs team, does it look to you like they could use one? Read newspaper articles about the company, it's officers, and their clients to see where you could add value. Include a couple of lines in the letter that explain how you could uniquely add value to the company and make sure it's clear you have researched the company. Employers are always attracted to candidates who take the time to do their due diligence.

2.Give a couple of examples of projects you have led, companies you started, or projects you have participated in (even if they were extra-curricular) that are relevant to the company (or department you are applying to) mission, goals, or values. Describe your accomplishments and any special skills you used as part of the project. You want a potential employer to read a few tangible examples of ways that your experience dovetails with the company mission. You are drawing a dotted line between your experience and the company's needs so that whomever reads the letter will see how you could be of value.

3. If your experience has been varied or diverse, include a few sentences that explain the commonalities between all of your experiences. I have seen resumes in which the resume owner's experience appears to be "all over the place". All kinds of different jobs that don't have much to do with one another. Normally there is a story behind these job changes but to the casual reader of a resume it just looks scattershot and, often, these resumes are set aside in favor of a resume with more of a linear career progression. If you are one of those people whose career has been extremely varied make sure you explain the common denominators and how they would benefit this employer...again you are painting a picture for the potential employer about how you could help them.

4. Understand that not everyone reads cover letters. Even if you write the world's best cover letter (I really think I do) understand that it may never be read and, if you are really determined to work for this particular company, have a backup plan. Find out the names of some employees on Linked In and try to network with any who are connected to your network. Once you know the names of some employees see if you can buy one of them a cup of coffee and find out more about the company and any employment opportunities. If your network doesn't extend to the company you could always try to cold call the HR representative or the head of the department in wish you wish to work - offer to buy them coffee and tell them that you are passionate about their industry and would like to find out more about the company. Flatter works as long as its sincere and not smarmy or creepy. No guarantees but a lot of people are willing to spend 15 minutes talking to someone who treats for the coffee.

5. You don't always need to submit a cover letter. If you are working with a recruiter the chances are that you won't need to submit a cover letter for job openings. If you are applying for an a job that is posted on a company's website and there is a box in which you can add a cover letter it means that you probably should. If you have a friend who works for the company and who wants to submit your resume to HR you may not need a cover letter - ask your friend about the expectations. If, however, you plan to contact a company at which you have no contacts it's a good idea to include a cover letter that explains your interest in the company or in a specific job opening.

A great cover letter draws a line between your experiences and the company's needs. You want to remove the "Why is this woman/man applying to our company and how is his/her background relevant?" question out of the equation. You want to make it clear that you can add value and you want to show some specific examples of how you may have done so in other jobs in the past. There are no guarantees that a great cover letter will get you an interview but under the right circumstances it certainly increases your odds.