7d: Tailoring Accomplishments for Your Cover Letters

Cover letters afford job-seekers greater opportunities than do resumes to describe accomplishments in detail and with more context. Cover letters offer job-seekers relatively wide latitude to tell stories about accomplishments and successes because letters are quite compatible with the narrative form. In a cover letter, you can engage the employer, make an emotional connection, show results, and become instantly memorable by including at least one paragraph in the form of a powerful accomplishment.

Hiring decision-makers vary in the importance they place on cover letters. Not all employers read cover letters (about a third don’t), but those who read, do truly read the letter, unlike the resume, which they almost always skim. Cover letters, effectively crafted, frequently distinguish the candidate. Of the employers who favored cover letters in the white paper I wrote, Cover Letter Reboot: A Crowdsourced Update of Traditional Cover-letter Advice for Today’s Job Search, many wanted to see accomplishments included, particularly accomplishments targeted specifically to the hiring organization’s needs. Fred R. Cooper, managing partner, Compass HR Consulting, LLC, for example, wants to see “what have you accomplished that is relevant to my needs and my company. Here’s what others said:

“I want to see the 3-4 juicy accomplishments from a candidate’s career (that match my advertised need). These highlights must excite me to such a level that this candidate becomes a can’t-miss prospect. If I am not swept away by the cover letter, then reading the resume is often anti-climactic and doomed for failure.”

— Ron Kubitz, recruiting manager, Brayman Construction Corp., Saxonburg, PA

“I like a bullet list of key accomplishments that can be backed up with quantitative data – real numbers – that prove to me you have a ‘proven track record.’ … I also look for how well the candidate understands what I need in the way of a solutions-provider and problem-solver.”

— J.T. Kirk, J.T. Kirk Industries, author of Confessions of a Hiring Manager Rev. 2.0: Getting to and Staying at the Top of the Hiring Manager’s Short List in a Confused Economy(2011)

Let’s look at some ways paragraphs about accomplishments can fit into a typical cover-letter structure.

The first paragraph should spark the employer’s interest, provide information about the benefits the employer will receive from you, and help you stand out from all the other job-seekers who want the job. Focus on your Unique Selling Proposition (USP) – the one thing that makes you different from all the other job-seekers – and identifying benefits you can offer the employer.

Accomplishments-driven first paragraphs. Note that in both the following examples, the job-seeker provides a summary of ongoing accomplishments, laying the groundwork for specifics later on:

I have increased the size and sales levels of my client base in every position I have held, which in turn has increased the revenues and profits of my employers. I want to bring this same success to the account position you have posted on your Website.

As HR director for the Kearney Public School District, I restored the administration’s faith in contracting with temporary agencies and workers, contributed my professionalism during a staffing crisis, and provided valuable insight to help the district recruit and retain productive, happy employees. I am convinced I can bring the same leadership to your school district.

The second paragraph should provide more detail about your professional and/or academic qualifications. Expand on specific items from your resume that are relevant to the qualifications sought in the job you seek. Or, if responding to a job posting or job ad, tailor this paragraph to the qualifications and employer needs described in the posting.

These qualifications might include skills, values, or experience.

Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights a skill (strategic ability):

As director of the Tokyo Tourism Board, I have demonstrated my strategic abilities by developing programs that resulted in an 18 percent increase in traffic to Tokyo in 2007, traffic growth of more than 10 percent in 2006, total spending and per-capita spending growth of 15 percent and 5 percent respectively, as well as 5 percent growth in length-of-stay to 3.66 nights.

Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights a value (motivation):

My high degree of motivation has been recognized by my previous employers who have quickly promoted me to positions of greater responsibility. I was promoted from assistant editor to editor of Alexandria Monthly after only five months.

Accomplishments-driven second paragraph that spotlights experience (in marketing):

My marketing experience is extensive and diverse – from opening up new markets to tapping into my vast pool of contacts in both business and government. During my marketing career with Pepsico, I influenced the objectives and direction of franchised bottler management, engendering significant credibility, mutual trust, and respect, and facilitating solid growth when the rest of the country was experiencing decline during the toughest year.

The third paragraph should relate your accomplishments to the company, giving details why you should be considered for the position. Expand on your qualifications while showing knowledge of the company.

Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments to the employer’s requirements:

I have built on my distinctive background in information technology leadership by developing exceptional expertise in managing large-scale technology projects, consistently delivering results within time and budget constraints, and developing teams to produce innovative solutions in bureaucratic environments. For example, I successfully executed CIO operations of a 2,000-person, $600 million Superfund Toxic-Dump Cleanup Project. The parallels between your requirements and my ongoing contributions for municipalities in Maryland are remarkable.

Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments with knowledge of the employer:

I’m no stranger to John Hancock, having conducted a cultural profile on financial services companies nationwide, thus providing consumer bank leaders with feedback and data to help them to clarify the direction for strategic planning. This work was so successful that our consulting practice, Colorado River Consulting, was entrusted to participate in a worldwide change effort.

Accomplishments-driven third paragraph that connects accomplishments with a specific employer need:

You seek someone who can bring greater systems stability to your operation. One of my most rewarding accomplishments was stabilizing a Fortune 500 company’s infrastructure by examining areas where the outages were occurring. I generated buy-in to implement a preventive-maintenance schedule that proactively rebooted systems during scheduled downtimes. I then oversaw database cleanup during scheduled outages to reduce unplanned outages. My plan reduced the number of high severity incidents from multiple instances a week to less than one per quarter.

The fourth paragraph of your cover letter requests action — a job interview or meeting. It’s unusual, though not unheard of, to include accomplishments in this paragraph:

Because my solid record of 26 patents and 60 publications provides strong evidence that I am a productive scientist, I know I can produce results for your organization. That’s why I’d like to request that we meet at your earliest convenience.

Tips for presenting accomplishments in your cover letter

Consider bullets, writes Deborah Brown-Volkman, president of Surpass Your Dreams, Inc. a career, life, and mentor coaching company. “Bullets work well in making your accomplishments easy to read.” Brown-Volkman suggests leading into this bulleted accomplishments list with a phrase along these lines: “Here are relevant examples of what I have done that match with what you are looking for …” Caution: When you bullet accomplishments in your cover letter, you may come perilously close to rehashing your resume. Rephrase them and provide additional details to avoid redundancy Frame your accomplishments with the journalism questions — who, what, when, where, why and how, advise the folks at OptimalResume.com – and do it succinctly.

Use a two-column format. A particularly effective way to showcase accomplishments is to show how they qualify you to meet an employer’s requirements using a two-column format (also known as a “T-formation” letter) in which you quote in the left-hand column specific qualifications that come right from the employer’s job posting and in the right-hand column, your attributes that meet those qualifications. The two-column format is extremely effective when you possess all the qualifications for a job, but it can even sell you when you lack one or more qualifications. The format so clearly demonstrates that you are qualified in so many areas that the employer may be willing to overlook the areas in which your exact qualifications are deficient.

One of my former students describes her success in using the two-column format: “Several months ago, you referred me to your Website where there was a sample of a cover letter using a ‘you require/I offer’ table format. Believe it or not, I sent in my resume along with a cover letter in this format to a job that was posted on Monster.com, and I actually got an interview!! The position is with [name of company], and I can’t even imagine how many applicants they had. When I went in for the interview, the person that I met with complimented me on the cover letter and actually said that that’s what got me in the door ahead of so many others! I used one of my own letters as a sample of an accomplishments-based two-column letter.

Consider opening your cover letter with an accomplishment. As we saw in the preceding section describing the parts of a cover letter, opening your letter with an accomplishment is a terrific attention-getter. Typically, an opener contains a summary of accomplishments, which may be detailed further in the body of the letter. A couple more samples of openers: I have increased the size and sales levels of my client base in every position I have held, which in turn has increased the revenues and profits of my employers. I want to bring this same success to the account position you have posted on your Website.

Try a cover letter that opens with an accomplishment summary, supported by bullets describing specific accomplishments. This variation on the accomplishments opener immediately leads into specifics in the form of bullet points, as in this sample. Here’s one from resume writer Ross Macpherson:

Over the past 12 years, I’ve won 38 national sales performance awards including Salesperson of the Year (6x) and President’s Circle (15x). My solid sales background, experience in Department of Defense and other federal sales, as well as my success with management and client service, make me an ideal candidate for the VP of sales position that you are currently advertising. Throughout my extensive career, I have proven my motivation, sales expertise, management, and operational skills. For example, during my time as Director, Army Major Programs, and Director, DoD Sales, at FuturaFind, I have:
– Increased unit sales from $4 million annually to more than $30 million yearly.
– Boosted backlog from $3 million in 2008 to $40+ million in 2012.
– Overseen achievement of more than 50 percent of total company revenue out of three company business units.
– Led growth of the Army team from $50K in backlog to $31+ million in backlog in three years, and recently closed a $15 million contract negotiation that accounted for 45 percent of total company orders in 2012.

Consider the “Get attention -> Stimulate desire -> Reinforce with reasons” format. Storytelling guru Steve Denning suggests a formula that can be applied to cover letters. Get attention by describing a problem the prospective employer has or a need the organization desires to fill. It must be a problem or need the employer has acknowledged – say, in a job posting or in a networking conversation. Stimulate desire by telling how you can solve the problem or meet the need for the employer. Reinforce with reasons by describing an accomplishment in which you solved a similar problem or met a similar need for a past employer. This technique works because employers know that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance. The format can use accomplishments for each of these three elements; in this sample, accomplishments are featured in the “desire” and “reasons” portions”