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How to Deal

Don't just plead and harp -- make your cover letter count

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 12:51 PM

Is there a good way to say "Hire me because I want to learn more about your specialized field, and you are the master."

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Usually a cover letter says how great I am, what I know. But the truth is, I have skills and experience, but really want to hone my skills with this specialized firm.

It can only help your application to express enthusiasm for an employer and a job. Given the choice between two equally qualified candidates, an employer would be foolish not to select the person who seems more positive and energetic.

Telling an employer that they should hire you because of what you could learn from them, however, crosses the delicate line between eager and obsequious. If the company is as good as you think, its hiring managers already know it. Flattering them with your high opinion of their work or humbly imploring them to accept you as a pupil will not get you the attention you desire.

Neither should you aim to simply tout your extensive knowledge and skill. The competition for the job you seek will most likely be fierce and this firm will have its pick of candidates every bit as impressive and qualified as you.

If you want to get noticed, your goal should be to demonstrate that you understand the operations of the business and how, exactly, you could make a unique contribution to its success. Nothing will impress the firm more than for you to be able to provide coherent and specific ideas for the "objectives" section of your annual appraisal. Challenge yourself to think beyond general concepts. Rather than asserting, for example, that you could leverage your extensive software development and customer relations experience to provide superlative service to the firm's top clients, discuss a specific technical project of the firm and how, in that particular case, your participation would make a difference for the better.

Job applicants so rarely do this. They make the mistake of "selling" themselves by focusing entirely on their positive qualities, leaving the employer to figure out on its own how it is that these great qualities might translate into a benefit to the workplace. Employers are obviously not incapable of making the connection between an applicant's qualifications and their business objectives, and they do it all of the time. But the applicant who anticipates the needs of the employer and is able to convincingly articulate how he or she plans to meet those needs makes it infinitely easier for that employer to envision him or her in the job. Presenting yourself in this way also suggests to the employer that you are a self-starter who will be able to thrive in their work environment with minimal supervision and guidance.

If you are lucky enough to get an interview with this employer and you find yourself engaged in a lively and satisfying conversation with a hiring manager whose expertise you admire, there would be nothing wrong with telling this person that you would enjoy working for them. You might even slip in a comment or two regarding what you are hoping to learn from the experience. But make sure that this does not become the cornerstone of your discussion, and please resist the temptation to refer to them as the "master," the "Jedi," the "guru," or any other term that makes you, by association, a wide-eyed -disciple. Whatever you do, keep coming back to your primary message: Not only am I good, but I have a plan for making it well worth your while to hire me.

Get more advice on how to polish your cover letter.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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