Quintessential Careers Sample Cover Letter

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by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., and Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.

What is a cover letter? Also known as a letter of introduction, letter of application, transmittal letter, or broadcast letter, it’s a letter that no smart job-seeker should send his or her resume without. Few employers seriously consider a resume that is not accompanied by a cover letter; thus, a dynamically written cover letter needs to be part of your job-search strategy.

Why is a cover letter so important? A resume is useless to an employer if he or she doesn’t know what kind of work you want to do. A cover letter tells the employer the type of position you’re seeking — and exactly how you are qualified for that position.

A cover letter highlights the aspects of your experience that are most useful to the potential employer, and you can earn points for knowing what those aspects are. Employers get hundreds of resumes, especially when they advertise a choice position. Employers are also very busy. Often the person screening resumes skims each for only a few seconds. Your cover letter can call attention to the skills, talents, and experience the employer is looking for

Your letter can explain things that your resume can’t. If you have large gaps in your employment history or you are reentering the job market or changing the focus of your career, a cover letter can explain these circumstances in a positive way.

A cover letter can serve the same function as the “job objective” on your resume, and expand upon it. Some applicants are reluctant to limit themselves by putting an objective on their resume. Although it is best for a job-seeker to target the type of work desired as specifically as possible, you may be open to more than one option.

Finally, a cover letter is a little window into your personality. A good cover letter can suggest to an employer, “I’d like to interview this person; she sounds like someone I’d like to get to know better. This seems like just the kind of dynamic person this company needs.”

Three Kinds of Cover Letters

There are roughly three kinds of cover letters, each corresponding to a different method of job-hunting. Most successful job-seekers will find that they do not employ any one method or use any one kind of cover letter, but rather a combination of all three. To understand the three kinds of cover letters, it is helpful to look at these three types of job searches.

Only about one-fifth of the job market is what we call “open.” That means that at most only about 20 percent of job openings are ever publicly known. The main avenue for informing the public about these openings is through job posting ads on various Websites as well as want ads in the newspaper, trade magazines, and other publications. Employment agencies and executive-search firms are another source of open-market positions. The first kind of cover letter is the invited letter, which is generally a response to a want ad or job ad — whether in print or online.

The invited cover letter enables you to speak to the requirements of the ad. You can offer the employer the requirements sought because you know the requirements sought; it’s all spelled out in the ad.

The other four-fifths of the market is “closed,” meaning you can’t find out about the positions unless you dig. That digging most often takes the form of compiling a list of all the companies in your field that you might be interested in working for and contacting them to ask for an interview. Obviously, that means some job-seekers will send out a great many resumes, accompanied by the type of cover letter that we call the uninvited or cold-contact prospecting letter, sometimes blanketing a given field of companies with direct-mail packages. This job-search tool can be very effective, especially if you have a specific set of companies you wish to work for or are looking to work in a specific geographic location.

[Editor’s Note: Read more aboout breaking into this closed job market in our article, Tapping Into the Hidden Job Market: Uncovering Unpublicized Job Leads.]

The uninvited prospecting cover letter enables you to take a proactive approach to job-hunting instead of the reactive approach, in which you merely answer ads. It can be a great tool for uncovering hidden jobs where supposedly no openings exist. Your letter can make such an impression that you’ll be remembered as soon as a vacancy opens up. You may also be able to create an opening for yourself by convincing the employer that the company needs someone with your talents. At the very least, you may obtain an interview in which the employer can refer you to others in the field who might have use for you.

Whenever possible, any cover letter should be sent to a named individual, and with the uninvited letter, this advice is especially true. The largest employer in Central Florida, for instance, throws away any letter that does not address him by name. If you want to get an interview and hence a job, you can forget about using such salutations as “Dear Sir or Madam,” “Gentlemen,” “Dear Human Resources Director,” or “To Whom it May Concern.” Those salutations tell the employer that you were not concerned enough to find out whom it concerns.

The successful job-seeker will persist in following up on the interviews he or she asks for, even when the employer says there are no openings. Will the employer be annoyed with you for persisting in seeking an interview? Probably not — employers admire drive and ambition. Your persistence means you truly want to work for that company. When we were hiring, the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” approach worked on us almost every time — just make sure you don’t overdo it and end up annoying the employer.

The third kind of cover letter is a very close cousin to the uninvited letter. This letter, too, is uninvited but it has an edge. It prominently displays the name of a person your addressee knows. We call this kind of cover letter the referral letter. Referral letters are the product of networking, which many experts say is the most effective method of job-hunting. In its simplest form, networking involves using everyone you know as a resource to finding a new job.

Referral letters can come about from a variety of sources. You might talk with someone at a meeting of a trade association in your field who will tell you of an opening she knows of. An acquaintance at a party might tell you of someone he knows whose company could use an employee with your experience. A friend might tell you about a job she saw through her company’s internal job-posting.

The value of the referral letter is in its name-dropping. If you can grab the potential employer’s attention by mentioning someone he knows and respects in the first line of the letter, you will have gained a terrific advantage over the competition. Some variations on the referral letter include approaches like these:

    “John Ross of Technology Unlimited suggested you might have openings for systems analysts.”

    “I met with Mary Jones last week, and she mentioned that you might have need for someone with a background in book marketing.”

    “My adviser, Claude Brachfeld, never misses an opportunity to tell me of your innovations in the superconductivity field.”

It would be a rare employer who would fail to interview an applicant with such an edge.

Final Thoughts
Remember that a cover letter is perhaps the most important part of a direct-mail sales package. The product is you. As with any other sales letter, you are trying to motivate a specific action. You want that employer to call and invite you for an interview. A dynamic cover letter can attract the employer’s attention and arouse interest.

Note: This article is excerpted from the 3rd edition of Dynamic Cover Letters (Ten Speed Press).

Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.

Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.


For other cover letter tips, see this section of Quintessential Careers: Cover Letter Do’s and Don’ts.

And don’t forget to follow this link to see some examples of dynamic cover letters.

Go back to the Cover Letter Resources for Job-Seekers section of Quintessential Careers, where you will find a collection of the best cover letter tools and resources, including articles, tutorials, and more.

Maximize your career and job-search knowledge and skills! Take advantage of The Quintessential Careers Content Index, which enables site visitors to locate articles, tutorials, quizzes, and worksheets in 35 career, college, job-search topic areas.

by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.

Cover letters afford job-seekers greater opportunities than do resumes to describe accomplishments in detail and with more context. Cover letters offer job-seekers relatively wide latitude to tell stories about accomplishments and successes because letters are quite compatible with the narrative form. In a cover letter, you can engage the employer, make an emotional connection, show results, and become instantly memorable by including at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful accomplishment.
Hiring decision-makers vary in the importance they place on cover letters. Not all employers read cover letters (about a third don’t), but those who read, do truly read the letter, unlike the resume, which they almost always skim. Cover letters, effectively crafted, frequently distinguish the candidate. Of the employers who favored cover letters in the white paper I wrote, Cover Letter Reboot: A Crowdsourced Update of Traditional Cover-letter Advice for Today’s Job Search, many wanted to see accomplishments included, particularly accomplishments targeted specifically to the hiring organization’s needs. Fred R. Cooper, managing partner, Compass HR Consulting, LLC, for example, wants to see “what have you accomplished that is relevant to my needs and my company.
Here’s what others said:

“I want to see the 3-4 juicy accomplishments from a candidate’s career (that match my advertised need). These highlights must excite me to such a level that this candidate becomes a can’t-miss prospect. If I am not swept away by the cover letter, then reading the resume is often anti-climactic and doomed for failure.”

— Ron Kubitz, recruiting manager, Brayman Construction Corp., Saxonburg, PA

“I like a bullet list of key accomplishments that can be backed up with quantitative data — real numbers — that prove to me you have a ‘proven track record.’ … I also look for how well the candidate understands what I need in the way of a solutions-provider and problem-solver.”

— J.T. Kirk, J.T. Kirk Industries, author of Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0: Getting to and Staying at the Top of the Hiring Manager’s Short List in a Confused Economy(2011)

Let’s look at some ways paragraphs about accomplishments can fit into a typical cover-letter structure.
The first paragraph should spark the employer’s interest, provide information about the benefits the employer will receive from you, and help you stand out from all the other job-seekers who want the job. Focus on your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) — the one thing that makes you different from all the other job-seekers – and identifying benefits you can offer the employer.
Accomplishments-driven first paragraphs. Note that in both the following examples, the job-seeker provides a summary of ongoing accomplishments, laying the groundwork for specifics later on:

I have increased the size and sales levels of my client base in every position I have held, which in turn has increased the revenues and profits of my employers. I want to bring this same success to the account position you have posted on your Website.

As HR director for the Kearney Public School District, I restored the administration’s faith in contracting with temporary agencies and workers, contributed my professionalism during a staffing crisis, and provided valuable insight to help the district recruit and retain productive, happy employees. I am convinced I can bring the same leadership to your school district.

The second paragraph should provide more detail about your professional and/or academic qualifications. Expand on specific items from your resume that are relevant to the qualifications sought in the job you seek. Or, if responding to a job posting or job ad, tailor this paragraph to the qualifications and employer needs described in the posting.
These qualifications might include skills, values, or experience.
Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights a skill (strategic ability):

As director of the Tokyo Tourism Board, I have demonstrated my strategic abilities by developing programs that resulted in an 18 percent increase in traffic to Tokyo in 2007, traffic growth of more than 10 percent in 2006, total spending and per-capita spending growth of 15 percent and 5 percent respectively, as well as 5 percent growth in length-of-stay to 3.66 nights.

Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights a value (motivation):

My high degree of motivation has been recognized by my previous employers who have quickly promoted me to positions of greater responsibility. I was promoted from assistant editor to editor of Alexandria Monthly after only five months.

Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights experience (in marketing):

My marketing experience is extensive and diverse — from opening up new markets to tapping into my vast pool of contacts in both business and government. During my marketing career with Pepsico, I influenced the objectives and direction of franchised bottler management, engendering significant credibility, mutual trust, and respect, and facilitating solid growth when the rest of the country was experiencing decline during the toughest year.

The third paragraph should relate your accomplishments to the company, giving details why you should be considered for the position. Expand on your qualifications while showing knowledge of the company.
Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments to the employer’s requirements:

I have built on my distinctive background in information technology leadership by developing exceptional expertise in managing large-scale technology projects, consistently delivering results within time and budget constraints, and developing teams to produce innovative solutions in bureaucratic environments. For example, I successfully executed CIO operations of a 2,000-person, $600 million Superfund Toxic-Dump Cleanup Project. The parallels between your requirements and my ongoing contributions for municipalities in Maryland are remarkable.

Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments with knowledge of the employer:

I’m no stranger to John Hancock, having conducted a cultural profile on financial services companies nationwide, thus providing consumer bank leaders with feedback and data to help them to clarify the direction for strategic planning. This work was so successful that our consulting practice, Colorado River Consulting, was entrusted to participate in a worldwide change effort.

Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments with a specific employer need:

You seek someone who can bring greater systems stability to your operation. One of my most rewarding accomplishments was stabilizing a Fortune 500 company’s infrastructure by examining areas where the outages were occurring. I generated buy-in to implement a preventive-maintenance schedule that proactively rebooted systems during scheduled downtimes. I then oversaw database cleanup during scheduled outages to reduce unplanned outages. My plan reduced the number of high severity incidents from multiple instances a week to less than one per quarter.

The fourth paragraph of your cover letter requests action — a job interview or meeting. It’s unusual, though not unheard of, to include accomplishments in this paragraph:

Because my solid record of 26 patents and 60 publications provides strong evidence that I am a productive scientist, I know I can produce results for your organization. That’s why I’d like to request that we meet at your earliest convenience.

Tips for Presenting Accomplishments in Your Cover Letter

Consider bullets, writes Deborah Brown-Volkman, president of Surpass Your Dreams, Inc. a career, life, and mentor coaching company. “Bullets work well in making your accomplishments easy to read.” Brown-Volkman suggests leading into this bulleted accomplishments list with a phrase along these lines: “Here are relevant examples of what I have done that match with what you are looking for …” Caution: When you bullet accomplishments in your cover letter, you may come perilously close to rehashing your resume. Rephrase them and provide additional details to avoid redundancy
Frame your accomplishments with the journalism questions — who, what, when, where, why and how, advise the folks at OptimalResume.com — and do it succinctly.
Use a two-column format. A particularly effective way to showcase accomplishments is to show how they qualify you to meet an employer’s requirements using a two-column format (also known as a “T-formation” letter) in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s job posting and in the right-hand column, your attributes that meet those qualifications. The two-column format is extremely effective when you possess all the qualifications for a job, but it can even sell you when you lack one or more qualifications. The format so clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may be willing to overlook the areas in which your exact qualifications are deficient.
One of my former students describes her success in using the two-column format: “Several months ago, you referred me to your Website where there was a sample of a cover letter using a ‘you require/I offer’ table format. Believe it or not, I sent in my resume along with a cover letter in this format to a job that was posted on Monster.com, and I actually got an interview!! The position is with [name of company], and I can’t even imagine how many applicants they had. When I went in for the interview, the person that I met with complimented me on the cover letter and actually said that that’s what got me in the door ahead of so many others! I used one of my own letters as a sample of an accomplishments-based two-column letter.
Consider opening your cover letter with an accomplishment. As we saw in the preceding section describing the parts of a cover letter, opening your letter with an accomplishment is a terrific attention-getter. Typically, an opener contains a summary of accomplishments, which may be detailed further in the body of the letter. A couple more samples of openers:

I have increased the size and sales levels of my client base in every position I have held, which in turn has increased the revenues and profits of my employers. I want to bring this same success to the account position you have posted on your Website.

Here’s one from resume writer Ross Macpherson:

Over the past 12 years, I’ve won 38 national sales performance awards including Salesperson of the Year (6x) and President’s Circle (15x).

Try a cover letter that opens with an accomplishment summary, supported by bullets describing specific accomplishments. This variation on the accomplishments opener immediately leads into specifics in the form of bullet points, as in this sample:

My solid sales background, experience in Department of Defense and other federal sales, as well as my success with management and client service, make me an ideal candidate for the VP of sales position that you are currently advertising. Throughout my extensive career, I have proven my motivation, sales expertise, management, and operational skills. For example, during my time as Director, Army Major Programs, and Director, DoD Sales, at FuturaFind, I have:

  • Increased unit sales from $4 million annually to more than $30 million yearly.
  • Boosted backlog from $3 million in 2008 to $40+ million in 2012.
  • Overseen achievement of more than 50 percent of total company revenue out of three company business units.
  • Led growth of the Army team from $50K in backlog to $31+ million in backlog in three years, and recently closed a $15 million contract negotiation that accounted for 45 percent of total company orders in 2012.

Consider the “Get attention -> Stimulate desire -> Reinforce with reasons” format. Storytelling guru Steve Denning suggests a formula that can be applied to cover letters.
Get attention by describing a problem the prospective employer has or a need the organization desires to fill. It must be a problem or need the employer has acknowledged — say, in a job posting or in a networking conversation.
Stimulate desire by telling how you can solve the problem or meet the need for the employer.
Reinforce with reasons by describing an accomplishment in which you solved a similar problem or met a similar need for a past employer. This technique works because employers know that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance.
The format can use accomplishments for each of these three elements; in this sample, accomplishments are featured in the “desire” and “reasons” portions.”

Back to Communicating Your Accomplishments: Samples for Every Phase of the Job Search and On the Job.

Need more cover letter information, tools, and samples? Go to our Cover Letter Resources for Job-Seekers.

Read more about brainstorming, tracking, and leveraging career accomplishments in Katharine Hansen’s book, You Are More Accomplished Than You Think: How to Brainstorm Your Achievements for Career and Life Success.

Career and Work Accomplishments Section of Quintessential Careers

Find expert job-seeker accomplishments tools, resources, samples — free expert advice about maximizing career accomplishments in this section of Quintessential Careers: Career-Job-Work Accomplishments Resources for Job-Seekers.

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