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Why a Cover Letter is One of the Most Important Letters You Will Write

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The cover letter that accompanies your employment resume is perhaps one of the most important letters you will ever write. Other than your resume, it is the single key document that will introduce you to a prospective employer and, if well-written, pave the way to that all-important job interview. It is an integral part of your overall job hunting campaign, and it can make or break you, depending upon how well it is written. Construction of this document should therefore be given very careful attention. The care that you give to writing this letter will certainly be a major factor in getting your job search off to an excellent start. Conversely, a poorly written letter will surely scuttle your campaign before it even begins.

The Purpose of the Cover Letter



Before you can expect to write an effective cover letter, you must understand its purpose. Without a clear understanding of what this letter is intended to accomplish, chances are it will be poorly designed, vague, and totally ineffective. On the other hand, understanding the purpose of this letter is truly paramount to maximizing its impact and effectiveness.

What is the purpose of the cover letter? What is it intended to do?

Well, first and foremost, it is a business letter used to transmit your resume to a prospective employer. So, it is a business transmittal letter. Second, it is a letter of introduction. It is used not only to transmit your resume but also to introduce you and your background to the employer. Third, and importantly, it is a sales letter, intended to convince the prospective employer that you have something valuable to contribute and that it will be worth the employer's time to grant you an interview.

To summarize, then, the purpose of a cover letter is:
  1. To serve as a business transmittal letter for your resume.

  2. To introduce you and your employment credentials to the employer.

  3. To generate employer interest in interviewing you.
Certainly, knowing that these are the three main objectives of a well-written cover letter will provide you with some basic starting points. For now, it is important to simply keep these objectives in mind as we further explore the topic of effective cover letters.

From the Employer's Perspective

When contemplating good cover letter design and construction, it is important to keep one very important fact in mind: The cover letter must be written from the employer's perspective.

Stated differently, good cover letter writing must take into consideration that the end result you seek is employer action. More specifically, you want the employer to grant you an interview, so it is important to understand those factors that will motivate an employer to do so.

To understand this important phenomenon, it is necessary to realistically address the following questions:
  1. How does the employer read the cover letter?

  2. What are the key factors the employer is looking for (and expects to find) in the cover letter?

  3. What are the motivational factors that will pique the employer's curiosity and create a desire to interview you?
I think you will agree that these are some very important questions to ask if you are to be successful in designing cover letters that will be truly helpful to your job hunting program. You must pay close attention to the needs of the prospective employer, rather than just your own, if you expect to write cover letters that will motivate him or her to take action. Cover letters must, therefore, be "employer focused" rather than "job searcher focused" if you want to really maximize their overall effectiveness.

Top sales producers have always known that the most important principle in sales success, whether selling goods or services, is selling to the needs of the buyer. What is the customer really buying? Where are the priorities? What specific needs does he or she need to satisfy? Without knowing the answers to these questions, it is easy for the salesperson to emphasize product characteristics and attributes that have absolutely no relationship to the customer's real needs, and de-emphasize characteristics and attributes that are truly important. The result-no sale!

In the ideal sense, therefore, it is important to research your target companies very well to determine what it is that they are buying (i.e., looking for in a successful employment candidate). If you are conducting a general broadcast campaign covering several hundred companies, such individual company research may simply not be feasible. If, on the other hand, you are targeting a dozen or so employers for whom you would really like to work, such research is not only feasible but should be considered an "absolute must." Careful advance research, in this case, will pay huge dividends, returning your initial investment of time and effort many fold.

Even in the case of the general broadcast campaign, where you have targeted several hundred companies, there are clearly some things that you can do to focus your cover letters on the real needs of these employers. Here are some guidelines for conducting meaningful employer needs research:
  1. Divide your target list of employers into industry groupings.

  2. Using industry trade publications and key newspapers (available in most libraries); thoroughly research each industry grouping for answers to the following questions:
a. What is the general state of this industry?

b. What are the major problems faced by companies in this industry?

c. What are the barriers or roadblocks that stand in the way of solving these problems?

d. What knowledge, skills, and capabilities are needed to address these problems and roadblocks?

e. What major trends and changes are being driven by companies in this industry?

f. What new knowledge, skills, and capabilities are needed to successfully drive these changes and trends?

Having conducted this research, you are now in a position to better focus your cover letter on key areas of interest to the majority of companies in each of your targeted industry groupings. This provides you with the opportunity to showcase your overall knowledge, skills, and capabilities in relation to those important needs areas. Such focusing substantially increases your chances for hitting the employer's bull's-eye, which will result in job interviews.

Where you can narrow your list to a dozen or so key companies, individual company research can have even greater payoff. Here, you have the opportunity to really zero in on the specific needs of the employer, and you can bring into play a number of research techniques for doing so. The research you do here can, in fact, be tailored to each individual firm; so you can substantially increase your probability of success and up by quite a bit the number of potential interview opportunities.

In many ways, the methodology used in conducting single-firm research is similar to that already described for industry-wide research. You will note some of these similarities as you review the following guidelines for researching the single firm.
  1. Determine the firms you would like to target for individual research (firms for which you would really like to work).

  2. Using industry trade publications and key newspapers (available at your local library) as well as annual reports, 10K forms, and product literature (available from the target firm's public affairs and marketing departments), thoroughly research for answers to the following questions:
a. What is the general state of the company?

b. How does it stack up against competition?

c. What are the key problems and issues with which it is currently wrestling?

d. What are the key barriers that must be removed in order to resolve these problems/issues?

e. What knowledge, skills, and capabilities are needed to remove these key barriers?

f. What are the company's strategic goals?

g. What are the key changes that will need to come about for realization of these goals?

h. What new knowledge, skills, and capabilities will be needed to bring about these critical changes?

Here, as with research of industry groupings, individual company research enables you to use the cover letter to highlight your knowledge, skills, and capabilities in areas that are of importance to the firm. In the case of individual firm research, however, there is the added advantage of being able to tailor the cover letter to target your qualifications to very specific, known needs of the employer. This can provide you with a substantial competitive advantage!

Another technique that you should employ when doing individual firm research is networking. If you don't already belong, you might consider joining specific industry or professional associations to which employees of your individual target firms belong. Using your common membership in these organizations as the basis, you can call these employees for certain inside information. Here are some questions you might consider asking:
  1. Is the firm hiring people in your functional specialty?

  2. Are there openings in this group now?

  3. Who within the company is the key line manager (i.e., outside human resources) responsible for hiring for this group?

  4. What are the key things this manager tends to look for in a successful candidate (e.g., technical knowledge, skills, style)?

  5. What key problems/issues is the group currently wrestling with?

  6. What kinds of skills and capabilities are they looking for to address these issues?

  7. What are the major strategic changes this group is attempting to bring about?

  8. What qualifications and attributes is the group seeking to help them orchestrate these strategic changes?
Answers to these questions can give you a tremendous competitive advantage when designing an effective cover letter and employment resume. You will have substantial ammunition for targeting and highlighting those qualifications of greatest interest to the employer. Here, you can make the most of your opportunity for successful self-marketing by focusing on the critical needs not only of the organization but of the functional hiring group as well. Clearly, this is a technique you should employ if you want to maximize your chances of getting hired!

The underlying principle behind this needs research methodology, whether industry grouping or individual company research, is that organizations are always looking for individuals who will be "value adding"-that is, individuals who can help them solve key problems and realize their strategic goals. These are the candidates who are seen as the value-adding change agents--the leaders who will help move the company ahead rather than cause it to stand still. Employer needs research will allow you to design effective cover letters that can truly set you apart from the competition and substantially improve your chances for landing interviews.

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