Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

A Strategy for Writing the Dreaded Cover Letter

A SWOT analysis can rescue a bad cover letter.

In my last post, I focused on 10 guidelines for writing a cover letter.  I know some experts think cover letters are dead but I disagree. As long as employers still ask you to send a resume and cover letter, you need to write the best letter possible.  You never know what small factor might turn a job opportunity your way-- and the cover letter is one more way to entice a recruiter to interview you. If it's well-written, of course-- a poorly written cover letter will work against you.

I'd like to share a powerful and versatile cover letter writing tool I've used for years: the SWOT analysis. For those of you who aren't familiar with a SWOT analysis, it is a common part of strategic planning used by businesses or organizations to identify their position in the marketplace and create strategies for moving forward.  Its use in the career search process isn't all that different.

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One advantage of this technique is it postpones writer anxiety, because you're not actually writing the letter yet.  This strategic thinking model allows you to organize your thoughts before you attempt to write a complete letter. You will simply start crafting sample sentences which will ultimately end up in the letter.

To create your own SWOT analysis, start by drawing a four-square grid on a piece of paper.  You can do this quickly with a pencil and paper, or you can use a word processor to create a table with two rows and two columns and expand them to fit a page. 

Once you have your four boxes, place the words "Strengths" and "Weaknesses" (internal factors) in the top two boxes and "Opportunities" and "Threats" (external factors) in the lower two boxes. 

Now, using the job announcement or company information you have regarding the position to which you're applying, start filling in the boxes:

Strengths:

Jot down the strengths you have relative to the position.  This is important-- don't waste time telling the employer about talents that they don't need or care about.  (See guideline # 6 in my post on cover letters.) Your talents/skills must match the position.  Pick the most relevant.  Try to focus on the 3-4 key skills most needed for the position.

Note both hard and soft skills: if the position requires that you know how to program in HTML and you know how to do that, that's a hard skill. If the position requires a pleasant demeanor, and you have that, write it down-- that's a soft skill.

  • What features or benefits do you have to offer an organization?  
  • What skills talents do you have that best match the position?
  • What do you do well?
  • What are your main achievements?
  • What knowledge or expertise will you bring to this position?
  • What traits do you have that match what the employer is seeking?

Once you've completed this section, try writing a few sentences relating your strengths to the position. Back up your statements with examples.

Weaknesses:

  • What aspects of the position would you find challenging?
  • What skills or knowledge are requested that you don't have?
  •  Think about your candidacy from the employers' perspective. 
  • What concerns might the employer have? 

Be honest with yourself, because these are likely the areas that might prevent you from getting the interview or the job.  But you don't stop here. What would be your argument to overcome those concerns?

Once you've identified these challenges, determine which ones you can overcome or mitigate in some way.  For instance, suppose the announcement mentions that you'll need to work with Excel spreadsheets, which you've never done.  You have a choice here: you can simply say it's not something you currently know but hope to learn (weak)-- or, if you really want the job, you will start learning Excel. Tonight. There are tons of online tutorials.   Find some instructional videos on YouTube or open up an Excel document and start playing with it.  Practice by setting up a fake budget.  Get familiar with the basics of the program including the terminology. Now instead of writing nothing about Excel (since you wouldn't bring up weaknesses) you can write something like, "Your advertisement indicates you are seeking someone with Excel experience.  I have recently started working with Excel spreadsheets for budgetary purposes." 

Opportunities:

This area requires that you have researched the company or organization.

  • What are the opportunities for advancement?
  • What excites you about working for this organization? 
  • As you look through their website, what appeals to you?  
  • What divisions are in the company-- is there a division or area you hope to move into eventually? 

What does the company need to do and how could you help?  For instance, maybe you're applying to a small nonprofit organization and you realize that their social media platform isn't well-developed.  This is something you enjoy, so you might mention that you would be willing to help develop a stronger social media platform to increase donations. 

How about the industry in general?  Where is it going and how could you assist with that growth?  One way to phrase this would be: "I am particularly excited about the opportunities for promotion within your sales division.  _____ is a growing field, and as more consumers begin purchasing __________,  I plan to _____________ to build a strong customer base.

If your research uncovers that the organization just opened a branch in a foreign country where you speak the language, you could mention this. (Don't assume that they will immediately put you in this position-- just let them know that you are interested in their international nature.)   You can indicate how your education or skills or could provide a valuable service to the company.

If you're changing careers and you know that your experience is related to the new position, but not identical-- how will you tackle that?  What can you say about how you could transfer your skill set to the new position?

Depending on the relevance of what you've uncovered, the opportunities part of your cover letter might only be one sentence-- or it could be an entire paragraph.

Threats:

Threats are the outside forces over which you have little control including the economy, rapidly changing fields which are shedding jobs, the other applicants for the position (including whether there's an internal candidate who has an advantage), etc. If you work in the auto industry, for example, the reduced number of job openings and the large number of applicants are a threat even if you are well-qualified.

If, for example, the position is located in New York City and you currently live in Chicago-- how will you overcome the threat of local candidates for the position (cheaper and easier for the company to interview).  How will you let the organization know that you are eager to move to New York City or maybe already have friends or contacts there?

You can write a sentence or two in your letter (if applicable) identifying and overcoming those threats.  Obviously you can't do much about the economy, but if you can identify aspects of your application that might work against you (such as your geographic location) you can explain why those aspects are not an issue. 

I work with liberal arts students who often compete with professional majors (e.g., an English major competing with an advertising major for an advertising position).  It's up to the English major to articulate the value of their degree in a compelling way.

Writing the Letter

Start by taking a look at the sentences you've created.  Begin organizing them into paragraphs.  Add an opening sentence and develop a strong close indicating how you will connect back with the employer (or whether you hope they will contact you).  Your cover letter should be much stronger now than the one you were originally trying to write.

Want to learn more about using SWOT analyses?  Quintessential Careers has a great post about using a SWOT for career planning.  Mind Tools is one of my favorite sites for great visual thinking ideas.  Here's their info on SWOT analyses.

Was this helpful?  The cover letter SWOT analysis is just one of many techniques described in my book, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career, available at your local bookstore or online. If you're graduating soon, a recent grad or the parent of a college student, check it out.

Find me on Facebook.  Follow me on Twitter.  Copyright 2011 Katharine Brooks.

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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