In today’s ever changing world of the job seeker, there is always a push to put your best foot forward and demonstrate versatility and innovation in the job market. One relatively new trend that we often see with clients is a transition from using a traditional cover letter to the more modern “value proposition”. Both are excellent tools for a job seeker to have in his toolbox; however, for maximum effectiveness, it is critical to know which document is appropriate for a given situation.
First, though, let’s take some time to outline the differences between the two. A cover letter is the more traditional document that a job seeker will include in her introductory package to a potential employer. Typically about one page in length, a cover letter highlights experiences and achievements in previous positions, using them as evidence that the candidate will be able to meet the needs expressed by the employer in the job announcement. Cover letters focus on the past, with a candidate spending three to five paragraphs expounding on their previous experiences and qualifications as they relate to a particular position.
Conversely, a value proposition letter is a much shorter document – generally only about 100-150 words. While a cover letter focuses on what you have done in the past, a value proposition focuses instead on what you can (and will) do for the company in the present and future. Because they are significantly less expository in nature, it is not necessary for them to be long, drawn-out documents.
Now that you know the difference between the two, let’s talk about how to know when you should use each. First up – when should you use a cover letter? The most obvious instance for when you should use a cover letter is when an employer asks for it. Even if you feel that a value proposition letter or other document would be more impactful in a given scenario you should always defer to any directions given by an employer. Not doing so puts you at risk of being disqualified altogether.
It is also a good idea to use a cover letter when there is a need to explain something unusual on your resume or in your background. For example, if you took time away from the traditional workforce to care for a sick family member or have children, a cover letter would be a great way to not only explain this to an employer, but to also highlight some of the transferable skills that you may have gained as a result of this (such as budgeting, conflict resolution, etc.).
When an employer does not specifically ask for a cover letter, you may decide to use a value proposition letter instead. Regardless of whether or not an advertisement specifically asks for a cover letter, it is important to always send a document that introduces you to an employer. You may also decide to use a value proposition letter if you are making a cold call to a potential employer who has not specifically advertised for a position. The value proposition letter would be a strong way to introduce yourself and your potential contributions to a company, by identifying a problem that they may or may not know that they have, as well as including yourself as a solution to the issue.
If you are unsure which is more appropriate, err on the side of traditionalism, and use a cover letter. Remember, though, that you can use elements of a value proposition in your cover letter to make it more compelling. While crafting your “combination cover letter”, be sure to emphasize where you are presently, and only speak to the past as a means to bolster what you plan to do in the present and the future. Place a great deal of emphasis on your experiences and skills as a way to add value to the company that you are applying to. Finally, keep in concise – speak directly to what areas of concern you will specifically address for an employer, and be sure to limit yourself to no more than one page