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?
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.
Normally I advise clients to use a concise cover letter that introduces their resumes and qualifications. This goes against the “rules” posited experts who say that every cover letter must be unique. Most employers don’t need the added information that belongs in the resume, not the cover letter.
A recent trend has altered my thinking to a small degree. Some employers are asking job seekers to write cover letters that address specific questions. In those cases, the cover letter must speak to that concern or you will not be considered as a candidate. It is important to carefully read a job post to be sure that you are addressing its specific requirements. If the employer asks for a specific cover letter, which occur in less than 5% of the job posts I’ve reviewed, your letter needs to be written to the terms of that job post. Otherwise, you can use a template model that sells your value as a professional and pushes the employer to read your resume.
This morning a radio news report said there was no white or black smoke coming from the White House during the president’s meeting with congressional leader. The person who wrote the news report was trying to be cute. Black and white smoke are the signals the Vatican uses to announce voting on a new pope, which is another issue currently in the news. However, by mixing these details the news writer’s attempt to be cute resulted in confusion.
We can fall into the same trap in writing resumes and cover letters. Heavy use of jargon or specialized language often does more to confuse than enlighten. Some people also try to sound impressive and rely on multi-syllabic words that make reading difficult. For example, most words ending in -ize are nouns or adjectives pretending to be verbs. Another word trap is using the language used by former employers. Companies often develop their own language, which is meaningless to anyone who does not work at that company.
Test everything you write by asking these two questions: Would a perspective employer understand this? Would she care? These questions will keep your resume and cover letter focused on what the employer needs, which is all that matters. When it comes to words, cute does not sell. Usually, it just leads to confusion.
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.
One of my clients asked me to review a cover letter. It was three pages long and did not address requirements of the job posting, skills and experienced that my client possessed. What was the problem? My client is changing careers, and she is talking too much about what she has done in the past, not what she wants to do in the future.
The letter focused extensively on her background in sales and training. However, the position she was pursuing requires strong communication skills and more of a focus on customer service. With a little revision, I was able to adjust the letter to show that my client has excellent writing skills and knows how to make clients happy by solving problems. She is well qualified for this position.
A career change is always difficult. However, it’s impossible if you can’t show potential employers how you are qualified to do the job. Most jobs give us transferable skills that are the key to any career change. Learn how to play up those skills and present them in a way that makes an employer call you to schedule an interview.
A good cover letter should not simply repeat what is in your resume. Use the cover letter as an opportunity to market yourself and drive the employer to your resume. More importantly, “everyone” (see yesterday’s post) says employers don’t have time to read long resumes. If that’s true, why should they read long, rambling cover letters?
My policy is to keep cover letters to half a page or less. I describe what the job seeker is offering the employer in broad terms that outline what is in the resume. Finally, I offer 2-4 qualities that reflect “soft skills” (time management, problem solving).
Whenever possible you should, make the document look like a business letter which includes the employer’s name, company name, address, and a salutation (Dear CONTACT NAME). If there a name is not given in the job posting, I recommend saying, Dear Hiring Executive.
Does every employer read a cover letter? No. However, many ask for letters, which means that they are read and valued. Why not take a little extra time to give yourself one more chance to get noticed. Don’t cheat yourself. Write good cover letters.