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Success with Cover Letters is All About Specifics

Part I

You've heard the adage in real estate and retailing that success centers on three things: location, location, location. With cover letters, success is also tied to three things: specifics, specifics, specifics.

In our roles as resume and cover letter writers, we often get requests from customers that go something like this: "Just give me a general cover letter that I can use for any kind of job." Sorry. No can do. Well, we can do it, but we certainly don't recommend it. A cover letter needs to be specific in every way. Otherwise, it's a fairly pointless document. Some experts say even a resume should be specifically tailored for each job. While we feel that a degree of resume tailoring is sometimes desirable, extensive tailoring is unnecessary if you're specific with your cover letter.

Among the many ways you should make each cover letter quite specific are:

Specific Recipient

A cover letter must be addressed to the specific name of the recipient. It's not always easy to find the name of the specific hiring manager, but try to do so if at all possible. Usually, you can just call the company and ask who the hiring manager is for a given position. The worst-case scenario is that your letter will begin "Dear Hiring Manager for [name of position]: " Your letter should not begin: "Dear Sir or Madam" or, worst of all, "To Whom It May Concern." That lazy approach shows the employer that you were not concerned enough to find out whom your letter does concern.

Specific Position

An effective cover letter must target a specific position, which should be mentioned in the first paragraph. If you're answering an ad, it's easy to target your letter to a specific job. But if you're making cold contacts to employers, you'll have to do some research to find out what positions that the company offers fit your qualifications. Don't list several possible positions or say that you're willing to consider any position. If you do, the employer will see you as unfocused or even desperate.

Specific Skills/Qualifications

It's perfectly OK if some parts of your letter are the same from cover letter to cover letter. But you need to be very specific when describing your skills and qualifications. Determine the skills and experiences that specifically qualify you for the job you're applying for, and describe those in your letter. Following are example paragraphs from a photographer looking to transition into a sales career. Both letters are for account-executive positions, but the letter writer stresses slightly different skills in each letter based on the qualifications listed in the ads to which she is responding:

Example 1

The exceptional organizational abilities and detail orientation I deployed to set up photo shoots are directly applicable to the skills needed to plan and coordinate events. With great profitability, I can prospect new business opportunities, strategize communication initiatives, successfully manage client relationships, give presentations, and much more.

Example 2

My experience in the client-service end of the photography business has ingrained in me the importance of establishing solid relationships built on excellent service. With great profitability, I can prospect new accounts, provide the required excellent level of service, successfully build an account base, close deals, retain customers, and much more.

-Katharine Hansen

Katharine Hansen is Chief Writer for Quintessential Resumes and Cover Letters and Creative Director for Quintessential Careers She is a Credentialed Career Master and Certified Electronic Career Coach. She can be reached at