The Type of Cover Letter You Need Based on Your Situation

Making a Choice

An effective job search involves several approaches to employers and job vacancies. Ideally, you’ll engage in a mix of responding to job postings, approaching employers that have not specifically publicized openings, contacting employers based on networking referrals and reaching out to recruiters. Just about every incarnation of a cover letter can fit into one of these categories:

  • The invited cover letter is a response to a job posting and should be tailored to the job requirements listed in the posting. This kind of cover letter is effective for jobs that are publicly advertised.
  • The uninvited or cold-contact cover letter (also known as a prospecting letter) is usually part of a mass distribution and requires the job seeker to do some homework to find out about each prospective recipient company. The uninvited letter is the best way to tap the “hidden” job market where the vast majority of the jobs lurk.
  • The referral cover letter, which uses name-dropping to get the employer’s attention, is another excellent way to tap into the hidden job market. When a mutual acquaintance tips you off to a job, you can use his or her name to your advantage in a cover letter: 

“Joseph Burns suggested I contact you about the opening you have in sales.” 

  • The recruiter cover letter, which may be about a specific position but is more likely a general overture about working with the recruiter.

The invited cover letter enables you to speak to the requirements of the job posting. Use verbiage taken right from the posting to tell how you meet the requirements. You need not cover every requirement, but you should be able to determine which three or so requirements are most important to the employer and the position. Note the order in which requirements are listed and how frequently certain skills are mentioned. A 2-column or “T-formation” cover letter can be a highly effective way to address requirements.

Uninvited/prospecting/cold-contact cover letters are used in an exploratory fashion to express an interest in working for a specific employer but not in response to a specific opening. These contacts will probably not yield fast results, but an excellent, well-researched letter that tells how you can address an employer’s challenges can be a terrific investment in the future. This type of letter is a smart strategy, especially for those already employed who have time to invest in a job search. It’s also a good choice for a targeted job search – and a referral letter is even better.

A step beyond this type of letter is the job proposal letter, in which the job seeker has comprehensively researched an employer, determined that he or she can address one or more of the employer’s challenges, and is proposing that the employer create a position for the job seeker.

A referral letter that mentions the name of a mutual contact – someone known to both you and the letter’s addressee – will usually get your foot in the door. Hiring decision makers typically honor referrals. If someone thinks enough of your company to refer a candidate to you, it’s discourteous not to consider the candidate. A few caveats, however: The decision maker must actually know and respect the named referral person. The referral person must be someone who will advocate for the candidate. If you name-drop a referral person, be sure this person truly will sing your praises if the letter’s recipient contacts him or her. Reinforce the referral’s advocacy by asking him or her to separately contact the hiring decision maker with a recommendation.

As the sender of the referral letter, you must be qualified for the targeted job. Use of a referral name will rarely make up for a lack of qualifications.

Cover letters to recruiters: Many recruiters don’t read cover letters, and the letters are infrequently entered into keyword-searchable databases, so key information must be in your resume. For those who’ve labored over a cover letter to try to get the recruiter’s attention, this news is a little deflating. Since you don’t know whether a given recruiter will read your letter or consider it important in evaluating you, it’s a good idea to include one. If you are qualified for an opening a recruiter is working on, your cover letter should provide crucial information that will save you and the recruiter time and aggravation down the road. Thus, it pays to attend to content differences between conventional cover letters and recruiter cover letters.

Recruiter-specific content can include these five pieces of information that recruiters like to see:

  1. All contact information (true of any cover letter)
  2. Reasons for leaving, why you’re on the market (sometimes included in other cover letters, but not as a general rule)
  3. Positions and industries of interest (with a conventional cover letter, you are usually applying, or at least should be applying, for a specific position)
  4. Salary history and expectations (never included in a conventional cover letter unless the employer has requested the information, and sometimes not even then).
  5. Locations of interest. Variations on this theme include willingness to relocate and travel.

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