Your Cover Letter as a Marketing Tool

It is time to review the real meat of your cover letter: what you have to offer a prospective employer. As with your résumé, your focus in the letter has to be what you can offer the employer rather than what you are hoping to gain. It may be okay for a new graduate to include that he or she has always wanted to pursue a career in social work due to a sense of wanting to give back to the world, but this needs to be followed with what that student can offer the employer. It can be okay to express enthusiasm for a position, as long as you can demonstrate how that enthusiasm can be to the employer's advantage. Your job is to sell yourself to the employer, aiming for a tight, concise letter.

If you find the idea of "sales" intimidating or off-putting, think of it this way: Approach everything you do in your job campaign as if you were the employer. What is it that you would be looking for? What qualities do you want to see? Then think about how you can best relate what you have to offer to what the employer needs.

Imagine you just found the most amazing cell phone you had ever used. It came with every feature you could imagine, was reliable, had a guarantee, and fit within your budget. Would you tell your friends about it? Probably. Would you think that you were selling the product? Not likely. You were just doing your friends a favor by telling them about it.

In your job search, you are the product. In your cover letter, you are telling an employer or recruiter about the great product.

The difference between how you sell yourself in your résumé and how you sell yourself in your cover letter is the purpose and the delivery. The purpose of your résumé is to present your benefits to an employer in a document that, while tailored to your desired position, is not tailored to individual companies or specific positions. Your cover letter, on the other hand, is ideally addressed to a specific person with hiring power at a specific company. You will have researched the company or, if responding to a blind ad (one that does not list the hiring company), researched the industry. This research allows you to tailor your cover letter to that specific company or field. Address how your qualifications can fill a need at the company. If responding to an advertisement, emphasize how your qualifications are the perfect match for the requirements listed in the ad. Except for a direct mailing campaign, just as you would not send the same letter to all of your friends (those Christmas letters may be the exception), you will not send the exact cover letter for each position you apply for. This is both the beauty and the difficulty of cover letters.

The beauty is that you can tailor the letter for the position, drawing attention to skills and experience that may not be as readily visible in your résumé. You can also give an employer an idea of your personality. Keep in mind that you do not want to repeat, verbatim, information on your résumé in your cover letter. Reword the information or summarize multiple points on your résumé while still quantifying your achievements where possible.

The difficulty with the individualized cover letter is that you will be writing a new, or mostly new, letter for each position you apply for. Those who do not like to write may find this daunting. There are a few tips, however, that make this process easier. First, keep in mind that you probably will not have to change the entire letter. Obviously, you will change the contact name and company, and address the position to which you are applying or for which you would like to be considered. But once you have a basic format, you can make appropriate changes to the body of the letter, which is where you highlight your qualifications—the meat of the letter.

Just as with the résumé, a cover letter will rarely be longer than one page. Generally, shorter is better, and for e-mail and other electronic submissions, a mini letter, or “e-note,” is often the most appropriate. For a standard cover letter, three to four concise paragraphs are about as long as it needs to be, if even that. A brief introduction, followed by a short bullet list highlighting the information you most want to emphasize, followed by a brief closing can be effective. Longer cover letters are generally reserved for those with extensive experience, those changing careers, and those in highly technical fields. Even in these situations, however, consider if a longer letter is necessary; often, it is not.

Your cover letter has two important roles. One, it is a marketing document designed to sell a product (you); and two, it is 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 all of us a little something about composing an effective letter.