If you are knee deep in a job hunt and applying to dozens of openings each day, the last thing you might want to concern yourself with is a cover letter. Some of my clients tell me they have never even written one. So, “Why Bother?” you may ask.
The most important thing to remember is that a cover letter can do things for you that a resume cannot. The main purpose of any resume is not to land you a job, but to gain you an interview. A cover letter can help with that by distinguishing you from your competition. When hiring managers see dozens – or even hundreds! – of resumes for one position, a cover letter can be the difference between them giving you a call or putting your resume in the “keep on file” pile.
A resume is meant to be professional and formal in tone, whereas a cover letter can allow you to show off a bit of your personality. You can talk about your passion and why you are interested in the job or company you are applying to. Additionally, a cover letter allows you to draw connections for the reader, to outline transferable skills, or explain why you are interested in pursuing a new career path or industry.
While it can be time consuming, it is best to tailor each cover letter to the job you are applying to. When writing your cover letters, you should have both your employer and career goal in mind. These factors will determine the format you choose for your letters. Two of the most common formats for cover letter writing are bullets and paragraphs. A third, less popular, but highly effective cover letter format is to include a table rather than bullets or body paragraphs. The benefits of each format and the best time to use them are examined in the rest of this article.
I use bullets in a lot of cover letters that I write. First, because I also use them in resumes, they often create a visual consistency between the resume and cover letter. More importantly, bullets are a quick way to communicate achievements to the reader in an easy to digest format.
I like to use bullets in the resume as an inspiration for the cover letter. I might use a bullet word-for-word from the resume or I might combine several bullets into a single one to give an overview of a position. Consider the following:
“Designed, planned, and executed a marketing plan that reached five specific demographics across three states and was a key factor in raising annual revenue in that territory from $30M to $50M.”
“Managed 30 staff members in the engineering department, driving adoption of Lean methodologies and process improvements that improved throughput 5% while lowering costs 10%.”
It is a good strategy to use bullets that address the requirements listed in the job description you are applying to. You can even use the same base cover letter over and over again if you switch your bullets out to match the specific details mentioned in each job ad.
If you are switching from one career to another and need to communicate the reasons for this change and/or your transferable skills, it might be better to forgo the bulleted format and use a lengthier paragraph format instead.
While this format might be lengthier, it allows you to communicate more information to the reader. However, remember that your cover letter still needs to be no longer than one page when printed. When using the paragraph format, you want to limit your “body” (you need an opening and closing paragraph in each format) to three sections. In each, you want to cover a specific reason you are the right fit for this position and provide some examples to back up your claim.
“The more time I spent training employees in addition to my other job responsibilities, the more I realized that was the most enjoyable part of my job. To facilitate a full transition into employee development, I studied adult learning methodologies and completed certifications such as “Train the Trainer.”
“An essential part of account management is customer service. While my experience is in retail, I spent significant time working with a range of clients to understand their needs and present them with appropriate buying options. I believe my work in this field has prepared me to serve your business clients with the attention needed to maintain positive account status.”
Again, even as you try to communicate your transferable skills and/or reasons for a career change, be sure to tailor your letter so that it incorporates requirements listed in the job description.
A third cover letter format that works well if you are printing the document or sending it as an attachment is one where you add a side-by-side comparison table. This approach is designed to cover several points from the job ad and address how you meet them. Consider the following:
Two years of college and two years experience in a customer-centric sales environment.
Four years of experience in retail sales, advancing to assistant manager while earning my Bachelor’s in Marketing.
Negotiations and contract management skills.
A proven ability to handle vendor relations and negotiate optimal pricing for several product lines we carried in the store.
Strong presentation and communication skills.
As an assistant manager, I led new hire orientations during the holiday season. In school, I made several presentations in class and served as the editor of a campus magazine.
The ability to accurately calculate figures, discounts, commissions, and volume.
As an assistant manager, I processed commission calculations for bonuses and managed all ordering. I also made suggestions to the store manager to know when we should discount an item to make room for new, seasonal products.
The primary advantage of this approach is that it allows you to draw a very clear picture for the hiring manager that you are qualified for their job opening. However, this is not the type of cover letter that can be cut and pasted for multiple roles. It must be customized to each job ad you are answering.
To use this format, follow the standard advice from the previous formats for the opening and closing of the letter and paste the table where your bullets or body paragraphs would otherwise go. Remember, even if the qualifications list is lengthy, keep your table limited to six or seven points for maximum impact.
It should be noted that the recommendations in this article are for cover letters prepared and submitted as printed, uploaded, or attached as Word documents. If you need to submit a cover letter in the body of an email, follow the recommendations in my next article: Submitting a Cover Letter by Email: What to Do and How Is It Different?