by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.You’ve heard the adage in real estate and retailing that success centers on three things: location, location, location. With cover letters, success is also tied to three things: specifics, specifics, specifics.In our roles as resume and cover letter writers, we often get requests from customers that go something like this: “Just give me a general cover letter that I can use for any kind of job.” Sorry. No can do. Well, we can do it, but we certainly don’t recommend it. A cover letter needs to be specific in every way. Otherwise, it’s a fairly pointless document. Some experts say even a resume should be specifically tailored for each job. While we feel that a degree of resume tailoring is sometimes desirable, extensive tailoring is unnecessary if you’re specific with your cover letter.Among the many ways you should make each cover letter quite specific are:Specific Recipient: A cover letter must be addressed to the specific name of the recipient. It’s not always easy to find the name of the specific hiring manager, but try to do so if at all possible. Usually, you can just call the company and ask who the hiring manager is for a given position. The worst-case scenario is that your letter will begin “Dear Hiring Manager for [name of position]:” Your letter should not begin: “Dear Sir or Madam” or, worst of all, “To Whom It May Concern.” That lazy approach shows the employer that you were not concerned enough to find out whom your letter does concern.Specific Position: An effective cover letter must target a specific position, which should be mentioned in the first paragraph. If you’re answering an ad, it’s easy to target your letter to a specific job. But if you’re making cold contacts to employers, you’ll have to do some research to find out what positions that the company offers fit your qualifications. Don’t list several possible positions or say that you’re willing to consider any position. If you do, the employer will see you as unfocused or even desperate.Specific Skills/Qualifications: It’s perfectly okay if some parts of your letter are the same from cover letter to cover letter. But you need to be very specific when describing your skills and qualifications. Determine the skills and experiences that specifically qualify you for the job you’re applying for, and describe those in your letter. Following are example paragraphs from a photographer looking to transition into a sales career. Both letters are for account-executive positions, but the letter writer stresses slightly different skills in each letter based on the qualifications listed in the ads to which she is responding:
- The exceptional organizational abilities and detail orientation I deployed to set up photo shoots are directly applicable to the skills needed to plan and coordinate events. With great profitability, I can prospect new business opportunities, strategize communication initiatives, successfully manage client relationships, give presentations, and much more.
Example 2:My experience in the client-service end of the photography business has ingrained in me the importance of establishing solid relationships built on excellent service. With great profitability, I can prospect new accounts, provide the required excellent level of service, successfully build an account base, close deals, retain customers, and much more.Specific Examples: Whenever possible, don’t just offer unsubstantiated value judgments about yourself; use concrete examples to demonstrate your claims about yourself. Example:
- I demonstrated my strategic ability when I successfully developed a direct corporate sales program and a corporate affinity program for ToyVillage.com.
Specific company knowledge: Demonstrating knowledge of the employer to which you are writing is not a mandatory part of a cover letter, but it’s a great touch that will often win favor in the eye of the employer. On one level, you can write something that sounds specific to the company you’re writing to but that really can be said to any employer:
- I am intensely interested in contributing my skills and experience to your firm because of your company’s reputation for quality.
On a higher level, however, you can do your homework and write something that truly is specific to the company you’re writing to:Over the last two years I have followed the unfolding events at Guffman Enterprises with great interest as the firm moved into financial and broadband services.Specific tailoring to a want ad: If you’re answering an ad, the specifics of your cover letter should be tied as closely as possible to the actual wording of the ad you’re responding to. I’ve had students express concern that it’s plagiarism to use the words of an ad in one’s cover letter, but here’s a case where using someone else’s words is a plus rather than a minus. In his new book, Don’t Send a Resume, Jeffrey Fox calls the best letters written in response to want ads “Boomerang letters” because they “fly the want ad words — the copy — back to the writer of the ad.” In employing what Fox calls “a compelling sales technique,” he advises letter writers to: “Flatter the person who wrote the ad with your response letter. Echo the author’s words and intent. Your letter should be a mirror of the ad.” Fox notes that when the recipient reads such a letter, the thought process will be: “This person seems to fit the description. This person gets it.”A particularly effective way to deploy the specifics of a want ad to your advantage is to use a two-column format in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s want ad and in the right-hand column, your attributes that meet those qualifications. The two-column format is extremely effective when you possess all the qualifications for a job, but it can even sell you when you are lacking one or more qualification. The format so clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may be willing to overlook the areas in which you lack the exact qualifications. See a sample letter in a two-column format.Specific benefit to employer: Jeffrey Gunhus writes in his book, No Parachute Required, “The purpose of a cover letter is to explain how you (the candidate) will benefit me (the company).” Your letter should should tell very specifically how you will meet the employer’s needs, solve the employer’s problems, or otherwise benefit the hiring company. For example:
- When I interviewed Ms. Kirkwood six months ago to obtain information about a career in real estate, she mentioned that the agency would like to establish a Web presence. I’d like to combine my interest in real estate with my knowledge of Web page design and HTML programming to help you create a Webmaster position in your office. I’ve even sketched out some preliminary ideas on what your Web page might look like, and I’d love to get together and show them to you.
Specific request for action and specific description of your planned follow-up action: Don’t be vague about your desire to be interviewed. Come right out and ask for an interview. Then, take your specific action a step farther and tell the recipient that you will contact him or her in a specified period of time to arrange an interview appointment. Obviously, if you say you will follow up, you have to do so. If you take this proactive approach and follow up, you will be much more likely to get interviews than if you did not follow up. This follow-up aspect is another good reason to obtain the specific name of the hiring manager. Here’s a sample closing paragraph requesting specific action and describing the writer’s planned follow-up.
- I would like to be considered for a sales position in which someone of my background could make a contribution. I will contact you soon to arrange for an interview. Should you require any additional information, I can be contacted at the phone numbers listed above.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
The college student who has been wise enough (or broke enough) to garner some work experience while in school may hold a competitive edge over the classmate who’s done little more than hit the books for four years. If the work was at the lowest level and outside your field, however, the experience can seem difficult to relate to the first post-college job.
How can someone who has been a server in a restaurant every summer portray himself or herself as God’s gift to marketing, for example? How can the retail associate at the mall near the university appear to be a fabulous teacher? How can the low-level office clerk position himself or herself as exactly the person an accounting firm needs?
It’s all a question of breaking down your previous jobs, no matter how lowly they seem, into the skills they provided you with that you can transfer to your ideal post-college job. Let’s look first at the most global and overarching skills and qualities. If we look at the lists of skills mentioned by hiring managers, recruiters, and career experts alike, we find certain characteristics common to all three:
- Communication skills (oral and written)
- Teamwork/group/interpersonal skills
- Leadership skills
- Work-ethic traits, such as drive, stamina, effort, self-motivation, diligence, ambition, initiative, reliability, positive attitude toward work
- Logic, intelligence, proficiency in field of study
Thus, these five skill clusters can be considered the most important in your first post-college job, and some or all of them will be required in just about any job in your career. You can hardly go wrong if you describe in your cover letter how your previous experience has provided you with one or more of these skills. Talking about the in-demand skills you possess in your cover letter can work even if your past work seems totally unrelated to the job you seek.
Career counselor Patrick O’Brien sums up his list of winning characteristics into just two “career commonalties,” noting that:
“Whatever a person does, his or her job is to do two things: solve problems and satisfy customers. The problems and customers can be tremendously different depending on the field,” O’Brien says, “but at the end of the day, that is what a person is paid to do. On a global level, employers are looking for the same characteristics.”
Beyond these commonalities and the five skill clusters, experts mention additional sought-after skills and characteristics, including:
- Organizational skills
- Entrepreneurial skills, a popular contemporary buzzword that encompasses the skills that people use when they start their own businesses. These skills include the capacity to be a self-starter, the ability to manage projects, and a talent for marketing oneself.
- Critical thinking and problem-solving skills
- Ability to acquire new technical, analytical, computer or foreign-language skills quickly
- The ability to sell ideas and persuade others
- Creative problem-solving talents
- Ability to follow orders
Now, let’s look at some lower-level jobs that college students typically hold while in school and examine how — in a single paragraph — these students can describe these jobs in their cover letters in terms of transferable and applicable skills that relate to post-college jobs they’re applying for:
Here are two more excerpts from cover letters that effectively exploit transferable and applicable skills:
I have held a number of marketing internships, and I am quite experienced with computer technology. As an information technology minor, I have designed systems, configured databases, and created my own Web page. You can visit my site at http://www.mcnet.edu/~jjasperson. The Internet marketing course I’m taking next semester will give me even more Web experience. I really enjoy working with computers and am convinced I could be a solid asset to the growing environment at Palmetto Technologies.
Through my marketing internship experience, I have learned a great deal about what it takes to succeed in the business world — good communications skills, flexibility, creativity, and an open mind. I am confident I have all the qualities and more to contribute to Palmetto.
The writer of the next example, who seeks a position with a scenic design firm, does a good job of acknowledging that the job she wants requires the ability to be a self-starter, as well as teamwork skills, and she tells how she acquired both those characteristics:
Some art work is solo, while some projects require the collaborative efforts of many hands, I work well independently as well as in teams; my first job was as a self-employed jewelry maker and seller. As a two-sport varsity athlete, I also know what it takes to achieve team goals.
Part 2: Now, let’s think about the transferable skills you’ve attained in the exclusively classroom. Go back to LiveCareer: Transferable Skills, which is adapted from Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates, by Katharine Hansen.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha).