Over the past few months, I've noticed that some employers (5-10%) are asking for applicants to put specific information in cover letter. Usually the request is for the applicant to give specific reasons why she is a good fit for the company. Today, I found a requirement that demonstrates the importance of reading job postings carefully. A company recruiting a Data Analyst lists this requirement as it's last bullet in a job post: "High attention to detail - mention the Rolling Stones in your cover letter to display your skill." This request might seem silly, but it is simple test to see how well applicants follow directions and pay attention to detail. It's easy to mock such requests. But, if you want to apply for the job, you have to jump through the employer's hoops.
One of my clients (We'll call her Mary) is applying for an internal promotion. To complete the application, Mary needed to put together a portfolio that included her resume and a letter of intent. Before sending the package, Mary called me and asked if she needed a cover letter. At first, I said no. Then Mary explained her reasoning. She wanted to included a cover page that broke out what she was sending and a small expression of enthusiasm. Then it hit me: Mary wanted to take the extra step to stand out from her co-workers who are applying. I loved the idea. She is showing that she wants the job. There was no downside to doing this. Either the person receiving the packet will be impressed or they will ignore the sheet. If it makes an impression, a few minutes writing a cover sheet could make Mary stand out. Whenever you can take such a step in a job search or any other type of communication, do it. Show that you care.
Clients often ask me to look at cover letters. In most cases, the problem is the same: Too much detail that repeats what is in the resume. A cover letter is a business document that introduces whatever it is sent with. For example, a cover letter sent by a bill collector would tell you that you have to pay a bill. A marketing cover letter would tell you why you should read a pamphlet or other brochure that is enclosed or attached.
If you’re looking for work, a cover letter should introduce your resume. Keep it short and touch on key selling points that the employer is looking for. I also like to include soft skills that are often hard to convey on a resume. For example, a cover letter is a good place to talk about being self-motivated, paying attention to detail, or describing your personality or work ethic.
If it’s true that employers scan resumes in a few seconds, why are they going to take the time to read a thick cover letter?
I was working on a project on Saturday that was especially frustrating. A client needed a targeted cover letter. He did a great job of describing why he was a perfect for a new job at a company where he already worked. I've written this kind of letter before and thought it would be a breeze. So I started writing and got stuck. I was putting words on a page (screen), but they didn't say what I wanted. I'd stop and start again. After half an hour of getting nowhere, I closed the file, shut down the computer, and went home.
The next day I went to work, which I don't like to do on Sunday unless I have to. This time the words rolled and the editing was fast. I hit all the points my client wanted to make, and the letter sounded good. After receiving it, he wrote back that no edits were needed. Sometimes, the best way to deal with writer's block is to just walk away. Delete what you've written and start over. It's hard to throw it all out, but I've found that is often the best way to get around a problem. Start over. Just make sure you're giving yourself enough time to meet your deadline.
Prospective clients often bring me cover letters that are thicker and longer than their resumes. I ask: If a hiring manager doesn’t want to read a long resume, why do they want to read a longer cover letter?
My philosophy is simple. Keep your cover letter concise and focused on your strongest qualities. State your current duties in a sentence. Sprinkle in a few of the soft skills that employers ask for in job postings. Don’t repeat specific details that will be played out in the resume. Use the cover letter to drive the employer to the resume. Keep it short and focused on the most important qualities you will bring to a new employer.
P.S. There is one exception to what is said above. Some employers, very few, give specific instructions about what they want in a letter. In those rare cases, be sure to address what the employer is looking for.
Clients will often present me with cover letters that cover an entire page. They go into great detail to recreate their resume as a narrative. I prefer a more concise presentation that outline key skills and attributes (a sample). There are two reasons for doing keeping your letter tight. First, if employers doesn’t want to read a long resume, why would they want to read long cover letters? Second, it is a cover letter. The function of a cover letter is to inform the reader about a document that is included with the cover letter. Ideally, it will say something that makes the reader want to read the document. Keeping your message focused and concise is the best way to convince an employer to read your resume.
A cover letter should introduce your resume. It should be clear and concise without going into the kind of detail used in the resume. At the same time, it should give employers a little meat to chew on. One way I do this is to include a sentence that highlights skills that will interest the employer.
Here are a few examples followed by the kind of job sought in parenthesis.
My duties have included maintaining schedules/calendars, travel arrangements, correspondence, and meeting planning. (Executive Assistant)
My duties included vendor management, negotiation, inventory control, and coordination of delivery and special orders. (Purchasing)
My duties have included store operations, event sales, recruiting, and training. (Retail Manager)
My duties have included all aspects of classroom instruction as well as extracurricular activities that encourage academic and personal development. (Teacher)
These are just a few examples of how a set of skills can be packaged in one sentence. Using this kind of sentence is one way you can keep you cover letter specific and concise.
The purpose of a cover letter is to introduce your resume, not to repeat everything it says. The cover letter should also give the reader a quick overview of why you are qualified to fill a position.
My strategy is to write a cover letter template after writing the resume. For most people, a template can be used with most resume submissions by simply changing the salutation and job title. Some experts say that you need to talk about the company you want to work for. Unless there is a direction to do so in a job post, I disagree. Most companies want to see how you are qualified. They will address fit and how much you know about the company at an interview.
My model cover letter is four paragraphs long. The first paragraph lists the position being sought, notes that a resume is enclosed, and offers references. Three short sentences. The second pargraph is a summary of qualifications. It is normally five to six sentences and covers key reasons why you will be a good employee. In the third paragraph, I highlight three qualities that fit the positions. These are usually soft skills such as organization, self-motivation, and leadership. In the fourth paragraph, I ask for an interview in these words: This summary cannot fully communicate my potential contribution. I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with you personally and answer your questions.”
A cover letter should be easy to read. It should take less time to read your cover letter than it does to read your resume. Keep it concise, but give your readers enough information that drives them to the resume. That’s the purpose of a cover letter.
Here is a sample cover letter: Sales cover letter
I read cover letters every day. What’s wrong with most of them?
1. They’re too long. If conventional wisdom says employers don’t have time to read resumes, how will they have time to ready windy cover letters?
2. They simply repeat details from the resume. The purpose of the cover letter is to introduce you and your resume. Let the resume speak for itself.
3. They talk too much about the employer and how wonderful the employer is. Employers know their company. They want to know who you are. More importantly, they want to know why they should invest time in interviewing you.
Remember the function of a cover letter: Write something that makes the employer want to read your resume – and meet you.
Clients frequently ask me if they need a cover letter. I answer honestly that some employers do not read cover letters. However, many others ask for them. Beyond that, cover letters allow job seekers to present their skills in a different way. Think of cover letters as another vehicle to market your talents and skills.
Don’t repeat your resume in the cover letter. Instead, use cover letters as a way to give a broad introduction to your resume. Think of your resume as the main course at a restaurant. The cover letter is an appetizer. Its function is to set the reader up to read the resume. Occasionally, a cover letter will add information that does not belong in a resume: commitment to a cause, personal information, or motivation for a career change.
Cover letters offer job seekers another way to speak to employers. Give yourself every chance to win a ticket to the interview. Send a cover letter.