Tech & Work

Make sure your cover letter conveys the right message

Instead of being able to rely largely on their employment network, consultants are finding themselves relying on standard tools to get their feet in the door. As you write your cover letter, keep these points in mind.


Kevin Donlin owns and runs Guaranteed Resumes, a resume and cover letter writing service that also provides job search assistance. He fields questions from TechRepublic members and offers advice based on his experience and expertise.

Question
As a consultant, I've rarely had to compose cover letters for prospective clients. Now, with more competition for fewer IT dollars, I've been told that having one attached to my resume is a necessity. What's the best way to compose a cover letter for a technical consulting position? Do you restate skills that the potential client asks for? Do you outline your most recent contract? What tone do you take? Are you fairly straightforward, or do you make it conversational and engaging?

Answer
Great question—and very timely. I think you can do all of the above and still stay relevant (and on one page) when writing a cover letter. First, let’s step back and define the job of your cover letter.

Whether you’re an independent consultant applying for a limited engagement, or a traditional job seeker looking for long-term employment, your cover letter should do as many of the following as possible, in one page:
  • Quickly establish rapport and catch a reader’s attention.
  • Drop tantalizing hints that you possess skills and knowledge that are invaluable to the employer.
  • Prove your interest by sharing data you’ve uncovered about the target company, its products, its competitors, and the position you want.
  • Finish strong and either ask for an interview or promise that you’ll call to discuss.

Now, let me try to answer your questions one by one.

1. In a cover letter, do you restate skills that the potential client asks for?
Don’t simply regurgitate skills. Instead, address as many as possible, with direct tie-ins to your own experience. For example:

“You will benefit from my skills in LAN/WAN design, administration, and support, as described in your job posting. With seven years of experience setting up, troubleshooting, and maintaining networks for up to 3,550 users on multiple sites for five Fortune 500 clients across North America, I can produce results for you.”

2. Do you outline your most recent contract?
Yes, you should outline your last contract, if it was a success and if it’s relevant! Even better, can you get a glowing letter of recommendation from your last client? If so, consider inserting a quote in your cover letters and resumes. One third-party endorsement like this will have more positive impact than 10 pages of your own claims.

Example: “After I delivered outstanding results—10 days ahead of schedule—that met or exceeded all end-user requirements, my last project manager, Joe Smith, said, ‘John’s skills as a VB coder were unsurpassed. I would hire him back for future software development projects in a minute.’”

3. What tone do you take—Straightforward or conversational and engaging?
Be brief, be to the point, and be gone. But don’t forget to be friendly.

Write your cover letter with the same level of language you’d use if you were delivering a sales pitch for new business—that’s really what you’re doing. When in doubt about how chatty or conversational to be, err on the professional side.

Whatever you do, do not start your cover letter with “Dear Sir or Madame,” which is suitable for any job seeker who is Charles Dickens. You’re not.

It’s best to open with “Dear Mr./Ms. (INSERT NAME).” Do whatever is necessary to call the company and learn the name of the decision maker. The best way to get a name is to be referred by a current or past employee/vendor/partner. Then, you can start like this:

“Dear Mr. Robinson,
Penny Smith, your IT director, suggested I contact you about your need for a....”

If you can’t find the name, try “Dear Employer” or “Dear Project Manager” instead.

Other suggestions
In addition to these suggestions, I always try to make sure that my clients drop hints that they possess attributes no employer could do without. I like to include a teaser paragraph in every cover letter that says, more or less, “Here’s why you’d be crazy not to call me.” Try something like this:

"I’ve developed software development methods, which I can share with you, that have produced a 15 percent gain in market share for my current employer during the past 11 months, generating $2.3 million in new revenue.”

What’s special about you? What can you do? Every consultant has unique and valuable attributes—make sure your potential employers can tell that about you from reading your cover letter.

Which cover letter helped you land the job?
Have you used a cover letter during the past year that helped you land your current job or contract? If so, send it to us. We’ll publish it as part of an upcoming article featuring successful cover letters.

 

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