Cover letters are not technically required when applying for a job, but you should approach them as if they were. A cover letter is the chance to create a one-page marketing brochure aimed at convincing the reader to hire you. It differs from a résumé in that, whereas a résumé is a list of facts and dates about you and a description of you accomplishments, the cover letter is an opportunity to explain why you are the best one for the job. This article will provide a corporate talent-acquisition specialist's insights into getting the most from your cover letter.
The basic approach is that cover letters are marketing tools. A well-written resume will highlight your skills, knowledge, and accomplishments. But your cover letter is your 60-second commercial. A strong cover letter and a well-written résumé are a one-two punch for landing a job interview.
The Consumer's Advantage
We are all consumers, a fact that you can turn to your advantage when you're writing a cover letter. That's because the readers of your cover letter are consumers, looking to acquire talent. And you are the talent you want them to purchase.
Put your consumer hat on and think about what happens when you read an effective advertisement. What makes you think about checking out the product further? You must think like a product-marketing specialist when writing a cover letter. Marketing specialists must know who their target audiences are, what it is they want, and how their products can be differentiated from the competitors'.
Insider's Edge Tip #1: Know Your Audience
It is important to know who will screen for the position that you are applying for. Understanding what they--the readers of your cover letter--do will help you decide what to communicate in your cover letter.
The two most common readers of your cover letter are the recruiter filling the opening and the hiring manager. The hiring manager is usually the individual who will be supervising the person selected for the job. Recruiters are usually human resources professionals who are not technically knowledgeable. A cover letter written for them should highlight accomplishments in general terms. An example would be emphasizing that you presented a paper at a prestigious conference rather than describing the content of the presentation, which isn't likely to mean much to them. However--and this is the challenging part--the hiring manager would benefit from knowing both.
You may need to do some research to learn who will be reading your cover letter. The cover letter may be read and screened by anyone, from a nontechnical office manager through a Ph.D. scientist who heads up a research division. How can you find out? You can contact the recruiter and ask him or her or try to get information from a graduate of your university who works at the company. But even if you know who the primary reader is likely to be, it still makes sense to hedge your bets by writing a cover letter than will appeal to both technical and nontechnical types.
Insider's Edge Tip #2: Know What Your Consumer Wants
Learning what the readers are looking for is the key to writing an effective cover letter.
The best place to learn what they are looking for is a description of the position, which is usually included wherever the job is advertised, electronically or in print. If the description is detailed, then you should take it seriously: Make sure the cover letter emphasizes the good fit between your skills, knowledge, and accomplishments and the position. Generic cover letters are no good.
But sometimes the information in the job ad is very general, so it may take some detective work. You may want to try using your network to learn more about the opening. Professors, alumni or alumnae who work at the company, or the recruiter (if there is one) may provide more information about what specific attributes the hiring manager is looking for.
It is also important to realize that, as with most consumers, different readers will perceive the company's needs in different ways. Your cover letter should achieve a balance: Just as it should appeal to both technical and nontechnical types, it should also appeal to the company's short- and long-term interests. A good recruiter can best satisfy the client--the hiring manager--by finding the right candidates quickly. It is also important (for the recruiter's reputation) to produce prospects that go on to have long, productive careers with the company. The hiring manager is more focused on hiring candidates who can do what the company needs them to do right now. They usually are not thinking about whether the candidates can progress their career within the company. This means your cover letter must highlight what you can accomplish for the immediate opening, but also spotlight your long-term potential for the company.
Insider's Edge Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself From the Competition
No two scientists or engineers are created equal, but anyone reading résumés of recent graduates may think differently. Your cover letter must differentiate you from the other scientists who would apply for the opening, not just with fancy paper or good formatting, but with compelling content.
Your cover letter needs to identify, in specific, tangible ways, what you would bring to the job that someone else would not. The recruiter and hiring manager want to know what you can do that another scientist cannot or what you can do better than the other candidates--and they want supporting evidence to back up the claim. This could include work that you have done that was recognized as being the best. This is again a good time to think like a consumer: What aspects of your talent make you stand out from the competitors? One way you can identify these differences is to talk with colleagues or faculty about what they might be. Formal or informal self-assessment tools are another option.
Also keep in mind that readers who work at a start-up company and those who are hiring for a large business may be looking for different capabilities. The smaller the business, the more you will be expected to do. So readers from small businesses might look at your scientific capability, but also at what else you can contribute to their business. You might, for example, be called upon to give product demonstrations, to write press releases, or even to staff a booth at a trade show. This means you should discuss competencies in your cover letter such as your flexibility, your ability to multitask, and so on. As noted above, knowing who is reading your cover letter and the type of business they represent will assist you in customizing your message.
Effective Cover Letters Work
You don't have to be a marketing expert to create an effective cover letter. You do need to follow these three steps: Identify the readers of your cover letter, know what they want, and find ways to distinguish yourself (in a positive way) from others who might apply for the job. A good cover letter can complement a strong résumé.
One other thing: The cover letter needs to look good, be in an appropriate format, be well written, and be carefully proofread. If you follow these tips, you will have the insider's edge to a great cover letter.