Cover Letters 101

By Frank DeSafey and Craig Travis

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First impressions really count. Your cover letter is intended to complement your resume to sell your professional background and experience so it will entice the employer into calling you for an initial interview. It formally introduces you and quickly tells your story. In fact, the cover letter is the "instruction" page that tells people where to find the nuggets in the resume; it guides them to the spots in the resume that truly highlight your experience, knowledge, and skill set that specifically match up to the job. That's why it's so important to have a wellwritten cover letter, an art often lost in today's environment.

You should think of a cover letter as a tool created and designed to accomplish three key things:

  1. Explain how you match up to the job opportunity — the how and why you match the position and want to join the organization in this capacity;
  2. Illuminate and reinforce the key points in your resume, the key achievements that illustrate your match to the job and how you are the one to meet their needs; and
  3. Convey your communication skills and abilities, particularly your writing ability.

Much like the resume, the cover letter can be a powerful tool when properly written. It requires a special effort to craft a good one, which ideally should be tailor-made for the specific position. Generic cover letters that aren't customized are often are seen as not working for you; at worst, they work against you. A generic, impersonal letter demonstrates your lack of effort, true interest, and enthusiasm, and conveys an inability to clearly articulate your point of view.

Customize Your Message

The cover letter allows you to customize your presentation to the specific job and employer by highlighting and reinforcing critical information in your resume. It's your opportunity to underscore the key achievements in your career that will be of interest to the employer and will assist in getting an interview. It also demonstrates your communication abilities. In an informal communications age where writing skills and style are often a lost art, a wellwritten cover letter implies excellent communication skills. This often translates into good speaking and presentation skills, which are critical for planners.

Your letter must be well written, be pleasing to the eye, and inviting and easy to read. It's a good idea to avoid using too many personal pronouns or sentences starting with "I" (i.e., I did this, I did that, I have, I this, I that, etc.). What's more, you should limit your cover letter to one page or a concise two-page document. Seldom is it necessary to go to two pages. As long as you are clear and succinctly address key points, you may use additional pages if necessary.

To successfully compete in the job market today, you must be able to demonstrate how you stand above all the others. The old business adage, "give the customer what he wants" holds true in the job search effort.

The employer demonstrates what they need and are searching to "buy" (the product that best meets their needs) through job descriptions and performance objectives. In this case, you—the product— must sell the customer on your brand. To do so, you must produce a cover letter that achieves the three objectives stated above in combination with your resume and other personal brand-marketing materials as may be applicable.

To begin with, let's dissect an example job description. It tells you exactly what the employer needs and is shopping for in the ideal hire. So it's important to break down the description and identify the key duties, responsibilities, and required qualifications. A job description might read like this (overly simplified for this purpose).

Planner

National engineering and land development firm is seeking a planner to develop long- and short-term plans for land use related to growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Duties: Meet with clients and civic planning authorities to identify land-use options, and develop land-use plans that will meet the requirements for growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities.

Prepare and present for public testimony environmental impact statements to comply with NEPA and local regulations.

Responsibilities: Ensure that all proposed plans meet federal, state, and local environmental regulations; zoning and building codes; any other pertinent requirements.

Qualification Requirements: Bachelor's degree in urban or environmental planning or related planning field, plus two years' experience producing long- and short-term land-use plans and working directly with local elected and appointed planning officials and other key stakeholders.

It's pretty clear what this employer needs and wants to buy—a qualified candidate who can fulfill these duties and responsibilities. In an era when the number of applications piles high, keep in mind that employers are looking for a shining sparkle; a diamond in the rough, a needle in the haystack, whatever metaphor you would like to use. A well-written cover letter highlights you as that unique individual and works to elevate you to the top of the pile.

So first and foremost, your cover letter must clearly and succinctly point out how you match the duties and responsibilities associated with the position. You can do this by reviewing how your professional background, experience, and developed skill set address their specific needs.

To accomplish this, begin by identifying the position you are seeking and briefly explain how and why you believe you are a good match. Use the first paragraph to address the issue of why you are writing, which of course is in connection with the job (state the specific job you are applying for). You might also explain your knowledge of the firm or its business, comment on a timely issue of relevance to the position or company, or share an outstanding fact about your background that illustrates your abilities and connection to the business that would be particularly appealing to the employer.

For example, you might write something like this:

As an accomplished professional planner with three years' experience working with engineering and land development firms, I believe the knowledge and skill set I have developed producing long- and short-term plans for land use related to growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities would be valuable to your undertakings.

At the outset you have stated your purpose for writing. It should also pique the reader's interest in your background and desire to know more about you. Next, illustrate the key experience and achievements you have stated in your resume that also closely match up to the position. The second and third paragraphs should further explain the first by telling the employer what you have done and are capable of doing for their firm.

It might read like this:

With applied experience in planning, coupled with my degree in Urban Planning, I am well versed in understanding and meeting federal, state, and local environmental regulations; zoning and building codes; and other pertinent requirements. In fact, I have consistently ensured that the proposed plans I have been charged with have successfully met all requirements.

Further, I am quite adept meeting with clients and civic planning authorities to keenly identify land-use options and to develop land-use plans that meet the requirements for growth and revitalization of urban, suburban, and rural communities. I've done this with an effective combination of outstanding interpersonal and communications skills along with strong technical writing and presentation abilities.

With a diverse professional background working on behalf of both public and private sector clients, I am especially capable preparing and presenting for public testimony Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to comply with NEPA and local regulations. In addition to being proficient in MS Office Suite, I am also able and willing to relocate immediately for this position.

Don't be solely limited to written paragraphs. If you believe several concise bullets will help illuminate or provide insight matching you to the opportunity, feel free to include those as well. Use your last paragraph to sum up and invite the employer to talk with you so you can further explain how you match up and how you can specifically make a difference working for them — perhaps something like this:

In closing, I believe the knowledge, experience, and skill set I have developed in my career have prepared me to meet the duties and responsibilities associated with this position. I have attached my resume which further illustrates how I can be an asset to your organization. I look forward to the opportunity to meet with you and to discuss how, as your new planner, I can specifically meet your needs.

A good trick or rule of thumb is to stand back from the document for a moment. Think about it from the perspective of a third party reviewing it and matching it to the requirements of the job description, advertisement, or performance objectives.

Finally, read your letter out loud and ask yourself if it reads well and sounds clear. Does it accomplish the three main objectives stated above? And always proofread it yourself; don't rely on spellcheck. Typos demonstrate a lack of attention to detail. Make the final edits as necessary and feel confident you can send it off along with your resume. Then follow up within a day or two with the employer to see if you can arrange an interview.

Frank DeSafey is president/principal of Sequence Staffing in Roseville, California. Sequence is an executive search and recruitment firm committed to providing recruiting and personal branding solutions to the planning, environmental, GHG/ climate change, sustainable energy, engineering, and construction industries throughout the United States and around the world. Craig Travis is the firm's vice president of recruiting, personal branding, and candidate marketing.