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March 10, 2009


By Mat Johnson

Every job seeker is different. That's why cover letters come in different flavors and accomplish different tasks. A cover letter can aim at a job posted through the newspaper, a networking opportunity, or top off a cold mailing. Here's a little on each type of letter:

Job Listing Cover Letters

The most common way to hunt for jobs is to check newspaper and online listings. For many, the first step in any job search is opening up the Sunday paper and seeing who is hiring, how much they are paying, and how much experience these positions demand. The effectiveness of responding to these ads is debatable. Often, companies list openings only because of "open door" regulations, and have already chosen an internal candidate. Many openings are filled through connections before the first letters come in. Still other ads are placed by companies or recruitment agencies which simply wish to test the waters. Even if the ad is legitimate, it is sure to attract dozens, even hundreds of other applicants. That's why having a stand-out cover letter is vital.

When responding to an advertised position, spell out in the first sentence where you learned about the job opportunity. List the exact name of the advertised job title, the name of the newspaper the ad was in (or which web site it appeared on) and the day and date the ad ran. Because companies often run several different ads at once, or ads for more than one position within a department, writing "I'm responding to the advertised sales position" may not be enough.~

Networking Cover Letters

Friends, acquaintances and family may sometimes tip you off to openings or currently employers. This necessitates a different approach to the cover letter - the schmoozing cover letter.

Connections are beautiful, fragile things that need to be cultivated, so make sure you follow proper networking etiquette. Do not use networking cover letters to ask for a job. People with the power to hire new employees take their responsibilities as gatekeepers seriously, and some stranger asking for a job only turns a gatekeeper off. But networking cover letters asking for career advice, information on the industry or just more contacts can often convince a powerful person like a hiring manager to become a more welcoming mentor.

Furthermore, networking leads usually don't appreciate cold calls. Instead of "When can you come in for an interview," the question you'll most likely hear is "Where exactly did you get my number from?" Even when your mutual acquaintance alerts them that you are calling, a cold call can still be ineffective because contacts have no concrete understanding of your experience, skill level, or ability to function in the professional world. With no idea of who you really are, how do you expect them to help you?

Sending cover letter and resume lets them have everything they need to know about you. By the time you call, they are prepared to tell you where you do or if you don't fit into their hiring plan. Depending on how strong the contacts are, they might also be able to give you insider information on how you can make your cover letter and resume even more effective for the company in question.~

Here are some tips to ensure your networking cover letter has what it takes.

  • State simply and clearly in the first paragraph exactly what you're looking for, and what it is that you want like from your contact. But remember, you're investigating opportunities, not begging for a job. Since few people have the power to hand out jobs on the spot, there's no point in asking.


  • Focus your area of professional interest without being limiting. Avoid overly broad sentences such as "I'm looking for a position in sales, or as a lab assistant, or as the night watchman or janitor." On the other hand, listing an exact position, such as "Associate Marketing Director," limits your inquiry to one position and increases the chances of a negative response. The best way to walk this thin line is to state the level (senior, entry-level, mid-level) of the position followed by the field you are interested in.


  • Mention in the last line that you will be in contact. Making contact is your responsibility, so don't meekly wait to be called. To avoid calling at a bad time, try the morning or when you know your contact will be out but a receptionist will be in. Ask the receptionist for the best time to call. Once you get your contact on the line, ask if the present is a good time to talk or if you should set up another phone appointment when it's more convenient.


  • Send the cover letter and resume to the individual's work address, even if you have a home address. If you don't know the contact's business address, call the company and get it, along with the contact title and department.

~Cold mailing

Cold mailings are the toughest entries into a company. The recipients don't know you, don't know anyone who knows you, and certainly didn't ask you to contact them. But cold mailing do have one advantage: they show your initiative and genuine interest in a company.

The effectiveness of cold mailings ultimately depends upon the establishment you contact. Some well-organized companies actually keep resumes on file and pull them when they begin hiring. But before you rush to mail letters to every Fortune 500 company, understand that most companies lack the organization to take such care with your resume. The onus is on you.

You need to demonstrate your interest in a company by presenting your knowledge about that company's history, current projects, and business plan. Once you know its plan for the future, you can tell the company how you will contribute to that strategy. (Roll out our research section for information on investigative tactics.)

Make sure you're addressing an individual. Call reception and ask for the head of the department in which you're interested. Hiring decisions are made by the people within the department, not Human Resources, so if you have a choice, avoid HR. Contacting an individual can also create a feeling of personal responsibility in the reader that might save your documents from the shredder. Seeing one's own name creates a sense of accountability that an anonymous posting doesn't inspire.