Three Topics to Address in the Cover Letter
Despite its inconsistent use by recruiters, the cover letter remains an important component of the application process. While some firms have completely stopped using cover letters for recruiting, other organizations swear by it. At its worst, the cover letter is an unorganized, generic letter that restates or summarizes what is already on the resume. At its best, however, the cover letter propels a mediocre candidate from the "no" pile to the "must interview" pile. Unfortunately, most cover letters lack both direction and purpose. There are three critical topics that should be addressed on every cover letter: Why are you applying? What value do you bring to the organization? And finally, an explanation for any glaring weakness of your candidacy.
Why are you applying?
The first paragraph of a cover letter answers the question of why you are applying for a specific position at an organization. The recruiter or hiring manager wants to know why you are writing and you need to catch their attention early and not just offer some generic sentence such as, "My name is Igor Khayet and I am a marketing major at Georgetown University applying for a full-time position as a brand manager at Procter & Gamble." This is a boring sentence that will be replicated by hundreds of other applicants. In your research, did you learn something unique about the company? Is there something unique about you or your experience that will make you stand out? Did you attend a presentation from the company or know someone that already works there? Make this paragraph as detailed as you can to show that you have spent time researching the firm and the position and not just changed the name of the company and clicked "send."
What value will you bring to the organization?
Once you have explained why you are writing and impressed the recruiter about your knowledge of the firm, you need to convince them that you can offer value to the organization. To understand what is valuable you have to know the organization and what the job entails. Read the job posting carefully and write down the 3 or 4 key phrases or words that are repeated. From a high level perspective, what are the major responsibilities of the role? Now, match your experience, education, and skills to fit that role. Remember that value is relative and not absolute; it's not about why you are a great fit for the job, but why you are a great fit compared with other candidates.
Are there any glaring weaknesses in your candidacy?
Cover Letters can also be used to discuss critical weaknesses that will be immediately apparent to the interviewer, but this should be used on a case-by-case basis. Example: A college student with no finance experience applying for an investment banking job. Example: A mid career computer programmer with a three year gap in work experience. In both of these cases, the recruiter will see red flags and usually throw the resume out without considering an interview. However, the candidate has the opportunity to preempt this action and directly address the weakness. It may sound something like this:
"You may be wondering why someone who studied history is interested in Investment Banking. Despite having no formal experience working at a financial firm, I have been personally investing money for the past 4 years, and earned a 20% return on my investment."
Igor Khayet is the President and Founder of My Resume Shop, a career services company offering assistance with resumes, cover letters, and interview preparation. He is a former Admissions Interviewer for the Yale School of Management and a member of the Professional Association of Resume Writers & Career Coaches. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.