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Your cover letter has two important roles: (1) it's a marketing document designed to sell a product (you), and (2): it's a business document that, while giving a glimpse of your personality, needs to remain professional. It therefore stands to reason that lessons from those who sell, and those who write for business, can teach us a little something about composing an effective letter.
What are you really selling?
Yes, you're selling yourself and all that you have to offer: your skills, your experience, your attitude, and your personality. But think about it for a moment. Is that what you're really selling? Take the example of a health club membership. What is it that members are buying when they join the club? Access to classes and a large variety of strength training and cardio equipment? Sure, at the outset this is what it looks like you're buying when you sign that one-year contract. But in reality, health clubs are selling desire: the desire to be in shape, the desire to be muscular, the desire to be healthier.
When you're selling yourself to an employer, think about what the employer is really buying. An employee who shows up to work, does the job, and leaves? Or a person who can come to work and identify and solve problems, make money, serve customers, and be a positive asset? Likely the latter. And to find people to do all that, the company needs employees who can save or generate profits, save time, enhance service, and represent the company … qualities that help propel the company forward.
In your cover letter, identify a need and offer a solution. Who can find hidden costs and eliminate them? Who is great at sales? Does this company need someone efficient? When you identify a specific need and show how you can meet that need, you become someone who will be a benefit to the company, not merely just another employee.
Think about how you can sell technical skills, for example. You can list all the technical skills that you have, such as software, hardware, and computer networking. Or you can convey that your knowledge of accounting software allowed you to introduce a better program at your summer position as an intern, thereby reducing the time creating reports by 40 percent. The first method is simply a list of features. The second method demonstrates the benefit gained from putting those features (your knowledge) to work.
What sets you apart? Refer to everything you learned about yourself from your assessments. Pull accomplishments from your résumé, and show in your cover letter why you're a benefit to the company—because you can accomplish X, Y, and Z. Go beyond simply stating your features.
Select the most impressive quantifiable achievements, reword them—or, better yet, present them differently, such as converting information to percentages—and highlight them in the cover letter. If some of your accomplishments are dated, this is a great place to emphasize that information without drawing attention to the timeframe.
Know your audience
Who will be reading your letter? Someone in human resources? Or the head of a certain department? If you're writing to human resources, for example, be sure to write in "plain" English rather than using a lot of technical jargon. But if you're writing to a senior scientist, demonstrate your knowledge of the terminology used in your field or you may come off looking inept. Write a personalized letter every time, keeping your audience in mind.
What's the atmosphere in the company? Is it corporate or a small, family-owned business? How you would address a hiring manager of a Fortune 500 company is very different from how you would address the CEO of a mid-sized private company.
Support your claims
You say you're skilled at obtaining contracts. Great. Now prove it. When writing your letters, don't simply state what you're good at. Show it. Give examples. Mine your past and come up with every possible example you can think of where you used the skills you claim to have. Make a list, and then choose the best ones to include in your letter. If you have a lot to choose from, keep the list so you can use different examples with each subsequent letter you send to a company.
Remember that your letters are much different from your résumé. You will not use the telegraphic style that you did in your résumé. Write complete sentences; even bullet lists are generally an extension of a lead-in phrase, with each line of the bullet list creating a complete sentence as "add on" information. Use words instead of abbreviations. Use the active voice and sprinkle your letters with action verbs. Keep your correspondence brief and to the point. Don't include irrelevant information. Use a tone that exudes professionalism, not amateurism. Avoid using clichés and slang, and avoid any references to political or religious beliefs, or other unnecessary, unrelated information.
This post was adapted from the new Vault Guide to Resumes and Job-Hunting Skills.
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