Customize your Cover Letter (and Resume)

Giving a Stalled Job Search a Jump-Start in yesterday’s WSJ tells the story of Rachel Jones, who applied for 130 jobs and used the same cover letter for every prospective employer. It wasn’t until she started writing cover letters tailored to the companies and position openings that she started to get called back for interviews.

Mating Rituals

Think of it like a dating site: would you contact a prospective date with a form letter, or would you take the time to mention interests listed on a prospective date’s profile, and highlight areas where the two of you are compatible?

A form letter is a big turn-off: “This person isn’t interested in me; they are just interested in a date–any date.” In the same way, a person reading a form cover letter is going to see that the applicant isn’t interested in the position; they are just interested in a job–any job.

The same kind of details need to go into your cover letter. Show that you know something about the company. Show that you paid attention to the job description, if you are applying for a specific open position. For example, if the job description mentions budgeting, you can mention your 4-years of experience creating budgets at Widget World, Inc. If you are applying to work in marketing for a tree nursery, mention the tree identification class you took from the city Parks & Recreation department last summer. Find the things you have in common and emphasize them!

Your Resume Deck

Don’t think that a custom cover letter is the end of the story. You should customize your resume as well, particularly if you are applying for jobs that are a little outside your usual field of expertise.

People who give frequent slideshow presentations often refer to their PowerPoint decks. Like a deck of cards, the slides can be shuffled and dealt to best suit the intended audience. Giving a presentation to a technical audience? Include all the slides with the nitty-gritty technical details. Giving a presentation to the executive suite? Skip the details and give them an executive summary, along with a dose of what it means for their business strategy.

In the same way, you should have a resume deck. For each position you’ve held in the past, you demonstrated a variety of skills. However, the graphic design skills you used to create advertisements at your local newspaper 10 years ago aren’t going to impress anyone at your new accounting firm. On the other hand, your project management skills and attention to detail at that same position are far more relevant.

For your resume deck, under each position held list every skill you demonstrated and project you completed. You will never send this version to a prospective employer, but it will be your starting point for each resume that you do send out. When it comes time to send a resume, keep only the items that best fit the job description.

2 Pages – Make Them Count

You generally have just 2 pages to impress a prospective employer (sometimes more, if your work experience merits a multi-page resume). Every word should help get you to an interview. If there is something on either your resume or cover letter that is not going to convince a prospective employer that you are the right candidate for the job, get rid of it! Replace items of questionable merit with something relevant and impressive.

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