One technique for writing a cover letter is to address each of the key requirements of the job. This approach provides a bulleted list or a table. Each line has one requirement and a short description of the job seekers experience with that specific task.
This technique can be very effective. It focuses on the key experiences the hiring manager wants and organizes them in a very easy to read format. When done well, a cover letter written this was should almost guarantee an interview before the hiring manger reads the resume. Unfortunately, writing a cover letter in this style is often done poorly.
There are three primary pitfalls with this style. First, the cover letter focuses on the key requirements of the position and provides a specific assessment of the job seeker’s experience with each. If the job seeker does not have extensive impressive experience with each requirement, the format will highlight the holes in the job seeker’s background.
Second, you need to have an accurate and complete list of key priorities to write a cover letter in this format. You may be able to get the key priorities from a posted job description. Often, the job description will not list every requirement and the relative importance of the requirements is usually difficult to determine. The reason for this is a result of where the job description originates. Most companies have standard job descriptions for each position. When the position opens up, the standard description is used. The hiring manager may have specific challenges in their department that are slightly different from the job description. Often, the hiring manager will post the standard description but actually assess candidates on the ability to meet the current challenges. This can make it difficult or impossible to understand a position fully from just a job description.
Third, many job seekers provide vague assessments of their experience. If you outline your experience relative to each job requirement, you need to be specific. Generic answers will hurt the overall impression you make.
The cover letter I read today fell into a couple of these pitfalls. Below are the first few bullets from the cover letter:
- Maintain and expand customer base: See resume
- Develop marketing plans: I have been doing that my entire career.
- Expand company revenues: I was instrumental in growing a small local manufacturing company into a national supplier with plants in three states.
- Manage trades shows: I have done them but it was not a major tool for us.
The format of the bullets is good but the content doesn’t work. The first bullet references the resume. If you are going to call out your specific experience, you need to include it in the cover letter. Don’t make the hiring manager go and look up the information.
The second bullet is extremely vague. It says nothing about the role of the job seeker in developing marketing plans, the scope of the plans that were developed or the success of the plans. We don’t know if the job seeker developed the marketing plan for the annual church bake sale for the last twenty years or if the job seeker was the chief architect of the global marketing efforts of a Fortune 500 company.
The third bullet is also vague. It does not show the job seeker’s role, the scope of the sales growth or the time period of the accomplishment.
The fourth bullet highlights the lack of experience with this requirement. Stating that trade shows were not a major tool is equivalent to saying that the job seeker has limited experience in this area. If managing trade shows is a key priority, this bullet could sink the job seeker’s chances by itself.
To rewrite the bullets to be more effect, we need to be specific and focus on the benefits the job seeker has provided in their career:
- Maintain and expand customer base: Over a twenty year period, grew a small regional manufacturing business into the leading supplier of a line of precision equipment in North America, expanding the customer base from a limited number of local firm to almost every major company in the industry.
- Develop marketing plans: Developed and managed all marketing plans, including managing sales, estimating, proposal development, advertising, and customer relationships over a 20+ year period, resulting in an increase in sales from $2 million to over $14 million.
- Expand company revenues: Entered a new market, growing sales from nothing to over $6 million.
- Manage trades shows: Managed and attended various industry trade shows over 20+ years in sales management.
The bullets are much more specific. The first three should make a very positive impression. The fourth is vague but much more positive than the original. If the majority of bullets are specific, one or two that are more general won’t hurt the overall impression. Ideally, the job seeker would describe how many trade shows they attended, the sales results from attending and the names of the specific shows.
One final drawback of this style of cover letter is how it focuses on the requirements and not the job seeker’s strengths. If your background matches the position exactly, this isn’t a problem. Most people will not be an exact match though. Your cover letter could be more effective focusing on your greatest strengths and accomplishments. The cover letter is a sales pitch for you and you should chose the structure that fosters the best sales pitch.
If you aren’t going to be specific with each requirement, avoid this style cover letter. It will do more harm than good.