Career Strategy Tips #5 - The Cover Letter Cover-Up
You say "resume", and, I say "cover letter". You say "cover letter", and, I say "highlights letter". I am going to take the outlandish position that the Cover Letter and/or the Highlights Letter as I will define them below, is as important, if not more important, than the resume.
A significant commitment that you should make as you move forward in your career is to do as much of the mental work as possible for the intended recipient of your resume.
Your Cover Letter should be influential. It should provide clarity and focus about you, and answer the key question, "why you?" -- for this position and/or company.
Your Highlights Letter should answer the question: "What makes you special and distinctive in your area of expertise?"
Also, there are times when you should use a highlights letter in place of a resume if there is a choice. Think of the highlights letter as an extreme, condensed, version of your resume, edited to fortify and stimulate interest in you.
However, when you are applying for a specific position and your next step is to send in your resume, a cover letter is a must. The following relates to a 'position-specific' cover letter.
The first or lead-in paragraph should be short and sweet. It should make reference to the position, that this is a follow-up to your conversation (if there was one), the fact that you are a perfect fit or a great fit for the position, and that below are your career highlights as they relate to the position's key requirements and components.
The next section of your cover letter is 4-6 bullet points. It is important that you keep the text of each bullet to no more than two lines and preferably one line. Each bullet should state your experience plus accomplishment/success as it relates to a key position requirement. Also, try to begin the bullet by repeating their wording. The following is a generic example.
• Lead national Sales Team -- Increased year-over-year sales by 20% through sales team leadership initiatives (at X company).
Their wording was: "Lead national sales team with minimum 5 years experience". In your cover letter you dropped "with minimum of 5 years experience" for space efficiency and your emphasis on your success as a team leader. It is implicit that you have the 5 plus years. If you decide that the "minimum 5 years experience" is a critical component of the position, then make it a separate bullet.
Do not worry if this same information is in your resume. If it is good, it is worth repeating. Plus, you are helping the reader focus on those parts of your background that are important for this position.
Your final paragraph, or third section, should be pro-active and specific. On the assumption that you have addressed your cover letter to a specific, strategic person -- the position's superior and/or the HR lead -- you should close with just a sentence or two like the following.
It would be a pleasure to meet you. As a follow-up, I will give you a call within the week to set up a time for us to discuss the position and how I can contribute to the success of your organization.
Now, let's switch from the cover letter that accompanies your resume to a career or professional highlights letter and its value.
Use a highlights letter to position yourself. It should emphasize those aspects of your career that are the best indicators of where you want to be headed in your career, and, it should always be addressed to a specific individual. It is succinct and pulls out from your resume those accomplishments that reflect your greatest successes as they relate to your career future. Again, the highlights letter should do the mental work for the recipient. It is brief, clear, and uncluttered; and focuses their attention on where you want it to be focused.
Similar to the cover letter, you should have a handful of one/two line bullet points that state your key accomplishments relative to your career future.
Your lead paragraph should be 1-2 sentences to set up your highlights. It may also contain your personal Brand. (See my recent article on Brand: "Career Strategy Tips #2 - The Power of Your Brand".)
Your closing paragraph should have an action item; i.e. I will call you on Friday to see if you have any further questions, etc.. Or, how does this fit with what Jim is looking for in his company? or...
There will be times when you can use your highlights letter instead of your resume because it distills and states the information you want the recipient to have. You have done them a favor by editing out from your resume the secondary information that will not give them clarity and focus about you.
The generic cover letter will keep you covered up and out of the spotlight. Is this where you want to be? The career specific Cover/Highlights Letter will save the recipient time, and direct his/her's attention to those elements of your background which will be of most interest and benefit to them.