4 Key Messages in Effective Cover Letters

Arnie Fertig
November 5, 2013

Whenever you are applying for a job, it's a safe bet that you are far from alone in asking an employer for consideration. Any employer reading a cover letter or résumé knows immediately that you want the job, so don't state the obvious.

What he or she doesn't immediately know is who you are, why you want the job, your professional reputation and whether you really want this particular job - or just any job.

That's why you should offer something very different than the boring and over-used, stereotypical first line: "I'm writing in response for your ad for a widget maker that you posted on your website ..."

You can distinguish yourself from others and demonstrate your excellent communications style with an attention-getting beginning. There are many creative approaches you can take to catch a reader's attention. Among them, you might lead off with:

--A third party authentication of your value. For example, you can quote something a reference has written for your LinkedIn profile that specifically relates to the job for which you're applying.

--A series of comparisons of what the job requires and what you have done that relates to each one of them.

--A plan for what you would prioritize and expect to accomplish in your initial period of employment (pick either a week, month, three or six months or year).

Once you have the reader's attention, proceed to make a bridge between your history, accomplishments and value on one hand with the employer's situation, problems and needs on the other.

The hiring manager doesn't know if you're a serious candidate or if you're one applying out of wistful fantasy or desperation. He or she doesn't know if you've taken the time to actually research the company, understand the role you are seeking to fill or if you have whatever it is he or she thinks a stellar candidate will possess. A well-written, concise cover letter should convey:

1. Who you are. In a nutshell, this is your personal branding statement that describes your professional attributes, key skills, attitudes, accomplishments and the value you bring with you to your next job.

2. You take this opportunity seriously. If you really want this job, show it by offering a truly individualized (if not personalized) document. Mention a key accomplishment and relate it to a key responsibility of the new position. Talk about the fact that you are being very selective in the jobs to which you are applying, and demonstrate why this company in particular strikes you as a potentially very strong fit.

3. Why the employer should take you seriously. Highlight specific skills mentioned in the job description, speak about how you have successfully used these skills and how you can add value to the employer by continuing and/or expanding what you have done so far in your career. Make sure that the letter isn't just all about you and your needs, but rather how you care about making a contribution to the employer. If you aren't seen as the answer to an employer's problem, you won't likely see an offer letter in the mail, no matter what credentials you may have

4. Address your red flag issues head-on. While you can minimize red flags by the way you present things in your résumé, you can't necessarily eliminate them altogether. If a reader sees that you effectively deal with a potentially damaging issue in a cover letter you can inoculate yourself from it. You can gain points for your integrity by not trying to hide something, and you can frame the issue in the best possible light upfront. This is preferable over having that issue eliminate you without you having the chance to address it in a conversation or having to deal with it defensively.

For example, if you have an employment gap because you took time off to care for a family member, you might highlight that positively and explain how that aspect of your personality might benefit the employer. You can say something like, "I offer your company the same sense of loyalty and dedication I provided to a family member when I took time from work to care for him until that situation was resolved." Or you might write, "Although personal circumstances of a limited duration caused me to leave the workforce for the last two years, I've maintained my edge by X, Y and Z."

These days, it appears that cover letters are read only about half of the time. But rather than not bothering to make the effort, you should view writing a snappy letter with a strategic message as one arrow among several in your quiver that you use to hunt for your next job. When well written, your cover letter will show you have thought about and value this particular employment opportunity. It will also explain why the employer should care about you.

Happy hunting!

Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.

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