Skip the “Dear Sir or Madam” and zero in on exactly how you’re going to solve whatever problems the hiring company has.
By Lisa Vaas
Do hiring professionals even read cover letters for senior candidates anymore? Some say yes; some say no, they don’t bother unless the resume in question has grabbed their attention.
The simple answer is that you should assume your resume will merit a look at your cover letter; always include one (either as a separate document or an e-mail that acts as one); and make it exceptional, so you stand out from the crowd. TheLadders talked to hiring and career management professionals to find out exactly how a good cover letter is laid out and what it contains.
The salutation is your first chance to make contact with a hiring professional, but it’s one spot where laziness often wins out over due diligence. We’re talking about the “Dear Sir or Madam” approach. What this generic salutation says isn’t positive: Namely, that the author couldn’t be bothered to find out the hiring manager’s name.
Abby Kohut, president and staffing consultant at Staffing Symphony, suggests job seekers can easily locate the right person online: “To find the name of the hiring manager, try searching on Google or LinkedIn,” she said. “Even a good guess scores you points because it indicates that you tried harder than everyone else.”
Why do you want to work here?
Kohut recommends that job applicants make sure to mention the name of the company in the letter, followed by an explanation of why they’re interested in working there. “Make sure that you really mean what you say,” she said. “Recruiters have a way of sensing when you are being less than truthful. Our goal is to hire people who sincerely want to work at our company — it's the job of your cover letter to convince us.”
Bombastic claims are just as bad as insincerity. Brooke Allen, a hiring manager at Maple Securities, said he hates it when job seekers claim in their cover letters that they’re his “best candidate.” “How can they know without evaluating all my candidates?” he asked.
You also need to make a sales pitch as to why the employer should want to work with you, Kohut said.
“Your letter should explain what you can do for your ‛customer,’ not what you are selling,” she said. “The key is to give the reader a small glimpse into your background, which encourages them to want to learn more by reading your resume.”
Length and format
Job coach and author Susan Kennedy, of Career Treking, provided this outline for a good, succinct cover letter:
Introduce yourself and state why you re writing; you are enthusiastically presenting yourself for a job, and your background makes you the best candidate. List a referral source if possible.
List your value to the company. Describe how you will contribute to the company from Day One. This should be based on research of the company and job. Share knowledge of the company’s goals, accomplishments and opportunities.
Call to action. Ask for the interview and state when (exactly) you will follow up.
If you are responding a job posting, Kennedy recommends a column approach. Below is a sample of how that might look, with bulleted lists of requirements and descriptions of how your background matches them:
Job Requirements: 1-2 years of general accounting experience.
Your experience: Tracked expenses and all financial reporting for a government subcommittee.
Job Requirements: Attention to detail.
Your experience: Edited manuscripts to ensure American English vs. British English.
Kennedy notes that cover letters “can also be used to bridge your background and the job.” She offered up an excerpt from the cover letter of a client with a degree in political science who wants to get a job in the video-gaming business:
“As you can see, my resume is attached. But what you won’t see on my resume is my passion for video gaming: it is how I see the world. My analytical skills and attention to detail will enable me to help solve the caller’s problems and ensure a high-quality product.”
Perfect spelling and grammar are mandatory
A cover letter is “a writing-skills evaluation in disguise,” Kohut said. “When recruiters are faced with large stacks of resumes for new positions, you'll never make the first cut if they notice even one spelling or grammar mistake on your resume or cover letter.” Make sure that even an e-mail is scrupulously proofread.
Tactics hiring professionals love
Sometimes a gesture can impress a hiring professional. Kohut was once beguiled by a candidate who read her LinkedIn profile and saw that she had won a ping-pong tournament. “He sent me a ping-pong paddle in the mail and wrote a cover letter with ping pong-themed language in it,” she said, including sentences like these:
- "I'd like to get in the game."
- "I bring energy, intelligence and motivation to the table."
- "I now feel compelled to drive home positive business results."
For Allen, the most effective cover letters are those that do one of the following two things in one sentence or two: They make a compelling statement that begs a response, or they ask a question that must be answered.
A good approach is to ask for clarification of a point that makes it clear they have done their homework, as in: ‘Your ad said X while your Web site said Y … Could you help me understand Z?’ ” he said. “I believe the goal of the job seeker is to start a conversation rather than just throw a resume into a pile.”
Tactics that hiring professionals hate
Allen said that cover letters or cover e-mails should not only be “well written with proper spelling, grammar, punctuation and capitalization,” but they should also leave out abbreviations or emoticons.
Phrases like “i dunno,” lolh,” “i dnt cf,” “!!!,” “dgms,” “WTF” and using all capital letters have no place in professional correspondence, he said.
“I am not against people who are into texting, if they use it when they text,” he said. “But I like the full expressiveness of our language and the keyboard.”
Abbreviations are also inappropriate. They’re not expressive, Allen said, and using them risks confusing your reader, who might not know what their spelled-out versions are.
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