Writing a Cover Letter to Control Your Message

Stop calling it a cover letter. You’re missing the point. You’re not covering; you’re opening.

It’s an introduction letter, a quick summation of what you bring to the table, and an invitation to read more details of your senior-level background and experience. And just like your resume, it needs to be focused on accomplishments and results.

Tell them what you are going to tell them

“Your core message needs to be in your introduction letter,” said professional resume writer Andrew Pearl, who works with Ladders. “Like a good opening of a speech, you tell your audience what you are going to tell them…. You boil down what a reader will see in the resume in a quick, organized way.”

The whole point is to get the reader’s attention by touching on key results that you’ll expand on in your resume.

“Both the intro letter and the resume need to be emphasizing what you can do for an employer,” Pearl said. “And the best way to accomplish this is by reinforcing the main accomplishments as bullets in your intro letter, using an economy of language and respecting your reader.”

Pearl uses four to six bullets in the intro letter with only a few paragraphs surrounding them; this formatting makes it easy for a reader to scan the page for key terms and language.

“Bullets are hooks,” Pearl said. “Use them to sustain a reader, but balance them with easy-to-follow, short paragraphs.”

Pearl recently rewrote the resume and cover letter of sales vice president Patricia K., who agreed the finished version caught her eye.

“I was really impressed with the intro letter Andrew wrote for me,” said Patricia, who chose not to use her full name for this article. “It blew me away how strong this letter was as a way of leading in to my resume…. The words he chose to use and the items he chose to use from my resume really stood out to me.”

Patricia has risen through the ranks quickly for a senior-level salesperson. She had risen to the VP level in the past three years, and had been with the same financial company for the past eight years. Her new resume, while impressive for its accomplishments, is a one-page document.

But it grabs the reader and doesn’t skirt around the issue of age.

Show some respect

“Experience is progressive,” Pearl said. “It makes age secondary. If you focus on the tangible results and you are succinct about it, then you are showing the hiring manager or human-resources person who reads hundreds of resumes in a few days some respect.”

“I had been with the same company for the last eight years,” said Patricia, who splits living in both Birmingham, Ala., and New Orleans. “So I hadn’t needed a new resume. But my old one had a format that was essentially copied from a book I found when I had finished college.”

That format was the old objective-and-statement-of-qualifications format, which includes a whole lot of bullet points.

“Her old resume was littered with bullets that were not really focused on accomplishments,” Pearl said. “They weren’t explaining the outcome of the results, and there were too many of them. The eye couldn’t breathe.”

Pearl said he encourages his resume clients to control the experience of reading your resume.

“There is so much that is out of your control in a job search,” Pearl said. “But you can control that intro letter and resume by being smart and focused on the decision makers reading your resume. Every bullet point matters, so use them wisely. Not all things are equal. Some people place in their resume that they have competency in Microsoft Word right after a bullet on some major accomplishment. On some level, it can be read that these bullets right next to each other are of equal value.”

The new resume for Patricia is already paying dividends.

She has gotten word of two openings via friends and former co-workers to whom she gave her new resume.

The results? “I was told my resume was at the top of the list which makes me feel very confident,” Patricia said. “My friend said his boss was really impressed.”

With that knowledge, Patricia expects to have the interviews begin soon.