By: Taunee Besson and Ruth Glover
“By the time a cover letter arrives on my desk, it better be good!” said Alyson Cate, Vice President of Human Resources at Lyrick Corporation, a privately held company in Allen, Texas, which produces children’s programs featuring Barney the Dinosaur and Wishbone the Dog for PBS. Alyson is rarely involved with most of the hiring, but for key positions within the company, she reviews candidate documentation and frequently interviews applicants. An executive who fails to impress her with his written communication probably won’t go any farther in the selection process.
Not all recruiters agree on the importance of cover letters. “I hardly ever read them,” said Bob Bennett, Senior Recruiting Consultant for Alcatel. And, according to John Madsen, a Seattle contract recruiter for an internet firm, “I read the cover letter only if I cannot grasp what the candidate wants to do from the resume within about 30 seconds.” Given the range of recruiter opinions, do you really need a cover letter with your resume? If you do, what should it say?
Whether recruiters read them or not, it’s always smart to include a cover letter because it provides an opportunity to showcase information not included in your resume. Your cover letter should be a carefully polished gem that grabs your reader’s attention and improves your chance of getting an interview. If you are applying for a position that requires writing, you can lay odds your cover letter will be examined carefully. A savvy recruiter will evaluate your writing for its clarity and fit with the corporate culture. Your words will count. If you are seeking a management job where written communication will be a key to your success, you can bet your cover letter will be scrutinized for its content and readability. The higher the position, the more your letter will help or hurt your chances for an interview.
Let’s take a look at how to create a complimentary letter that will add genuine value to your resume. First of all, it must be concise. Since recruiters spend about 10 seconds per resume, they often don’t take time to read the cover letter. If they do, they look for targeted information they can quickly grasp. If your letter is more than one page, it’s too long. Consequently, it’s wise to start with a rough draft and keep revising it until every remaining word is vital to its content.
You’ll want to put your name, city, phone number and email address at the top of the page. Check the spelling and numbers several times. You don’t want an employer to discard your resume or cover letter because he can’t reach you. A recruiter would rather talk with you during the day, so include your cell number if you can.
The First Paragraph
The first paragraph of your letter should state how you found out about the job opening. Most companies keep records to determine which sources are most productive in attracting promising people. If you saw the job in an advertisement, mention the posting and the title of the job you want. Recruiters work too rapidly to guess your objective. To say you are applying for a “telecommunications position” is far too nebulous. If you are a Systems Analyst or Project Manager in telecommunications, say so.
If you’ve researched the company, be sure to mention why you are particularly interested in it. Alluding to its products, philosophy or reputation coupled with sending the letter to the correct recruiter (if you can find out who it is), gives you an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
If you know someone at the company, feel free to mention that person, if it’s in your best interest. Your acquaintance with a director or manager may either help (or hinder) your search. Drop a name only if the person appreciates your work and will speak highly of your contribution. It would also be advisable to get permission to refer to your contact ahead of time.
The Second Paragraph
Cover letters must provide customized information in addition to what’s in your resume. The buzz word these days is “value added.” How can your cover letter add value to your resume? Talk about some of your soft skills, such as teamwork, initiative and organizational ability. Cite a specific reason why you are the ideal candidate for the position, then customize your letter to prove your point.
Recruiters would rather read about your accomplishments than see trite phrases such as “excellent communication skills.” They want to know the specifics of what you have done. If you want to illustrate your excellent communication skills, you might mention your weekly sales briefings to top management or your speech to an audience of 500 people.
Using lists or bulleting your applicable accomplishments is another good way to highlight your experience. The example below shows you how to match your qualifications with the criteria required in a very readable format.
|Your Needs||My Qualifications|
|Prefer MBA with technical undergraduate degree||BSEE, MBA|
|Minimum of three years of sales experience||Five years of technical sales support in an engineering environment|
|Experience in marketing||Designed and implemented four marketing campaigns|
|Excellent communication skills||Adept at public speaking and writing, especially involving the roll-out of software products|
The Closing Paragraph
Before you close your letter, tell the recruiter you will follow up to confirm receipt of your resume and set an interview appointment, if appropriate. Employers like candidates with initiative and perseverance. Proactive pursuit on your part may increase your chance for an interview unless you’ve been told specifically not to call. Persistent enthusiasm will generally take you farther than benign neglect.
A Few Other Words of Wisdom
Chris saw an ad for several positions with a tech company in the St. Louis area. He was interested in both Tech Writer and Tech Trainer roles. He sent separate cover letters and resumes for each job. Was this duplication of effort redundant or necessary? While it may not matter, Chris is more likely to be considered for both positions with this method. If a company is large, recruiters have responsibility for specific jobs. Sending one cover letter and resume may result in Chris being considered for only one opportunity when he has skills for both jobs.
Speaking of tech, when submitting your resume online, your best bet is to include your cover letter as part of the text,” according to James Sale of Westech Career Fairs, corporate owner of Virtual Job Fair. If you send your letter and resume as one document, it will reach its destination intact.
When it comes to cover letters, “To write or not to write?” is a question you should answer in the affirmative. While most recruiters agree your resume is more important, a clear, concise, carefully-tailored cover letter will often tip the interview decision in your favor.
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.
In 1994, the Dallas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development chose her as its “Professional of the Year”. Her NBEW columns were selected for the “Ten Best Article Award” in 1990, 1994 and 1997. In 1999, Alpha Gamma Delta, a 200,000 member fraternal organization, named her as one of three “Distinguished Citizens” at its biannual international convention.