Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Makes a Good Cover Letter, Pt I

First, let’s talk about what does not constitute a good cover letter; unnecessarily lengthy, monotonous, uninspiring, generic form letters, virtual autobiographies that put people to sleep before they even get to your resume. Many people have the false impression they need to assemble a cover letter to go with their resume, as though it is a part of the hiring ritual – however, it is not. A cover letter can be helpful, and if you have reason to do so go for it, but in most cases I think it is just fluff. For over 20 years I have been recruiting, representing and placing middle-senior professionals and specialists including lawyers, directors, VPs, specialists of many stripes and rarely was there a cover letter used. Also, when a cover letter was used it never made much difference. As a follow up to any placement of a candidate I represent, I always ask what it was that made the difference; what was it that made my candidate more attractive, and nobody has ever told me it was a result of their cover letter. 

There are, of course, some positions that do require cover letters, such as in academia, or if you must as part of a process, assemble a packet of information for review by a committee. But it just strikes me as being more of a function of a PR campaign effort than it is a necessary step in the interview process. Most cover letters look more like highbrow letters of introduction, but are you trying to gain acceptance into a country club or attract the attention of a hiring manager? Another reason for my lack of enthusiasm is because in the modern era HR is reading fewer resumes than ever, they’re scanning them for keywords and adding them to a database, so it is likely your cover letter will go unread. But the primary reason cover letters do so little is because the information contained therein usually provides little or no reason for anyone to select you, much less choose you ahead of another applicant as a result.  

However, if you insist that you want to utilize a cover letter, or you are compelled to do so, let’s talk about making it something that will enhance your chances rather than causing people to roll their eyes about the number of pages they must flip through before they get to some pertinent info.  

Ideally, a cover letter should serve two purposes; one, to briefly introduce yourself and state your intention, and two, provide compelling reasons why you should be considered straight away and put to the head of the line – period. If it has no spark, then you’re just going through the motions. 

If you’re using a form letter, recognize that one size does not fit all possibilities. Mass mailing generic form letters will do nothing for you and won’t be taken seriously and, again, better to send no cover letter than some cookie-cutter template in which you just switched out or added your name and used it. If you are not passionate about what you have to offer it will show by virtue of failing to excite or entice anyone. So here’s a suggestion; stop using crappy templates from the Internet or something a well-meaning friend sent you; your cover letter should stand out and that means it should be as individual as you are. Get with it and actually write your own cover letter and stop resorting to mediocre point-and-click solutions for everything – if indeed you really want to be different from others with whom you’re competing. Depending on your goal, you may need to write a different cover letter for each opportunity you pursue, but more likely you can assemble an individualized template for yourself, having variants according to need. Some people have slightly varied versions of their resumes they might use, depending upon the niche areas of a market sector within which they are applying; if you’re going to use a cover letter, do the same; it should be somewhat tailored and the content corresponding to the company to whom you are inquiring.  

Are you beginning to realize a cover letter is not just something you throw together? If you’re going to use one it should serve as an octane booster, a strategic and calculated adjunct to your efforts to enhance your resume. If this sounds like a lot of work, yes, it can be but you’ll invest the effort once and then you’ll have your own personalized templates for use whenever you need. Hey, these strategies don’t change with the wind, they are always effective because they are different, innovative and actually say something about you. 

Next time we’ll continue with a formula for a cover letter that actually says something worthy of notice.

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