Even Ann Landers could be hard-pressed to name a form of communication that causes more consternation to more people than cover letters.
For job hunters eager to trumpet their qualifications, the cover letter can be a a clarion call to success or a resoundingly loud sour note.
The striking difference in tone is often a result of haste. Applicants tend to lavish attention on their résumés, while treating cover letters as a nuisance to be flicked off quickly.
Such mistreatment is a sure way to alienate potential employers, says Deirdre Kelly, human resource manager for Gardener’s Supply, a national mail-order company in Burlington, Vt.. Cover letters can make or break whether résumé go into the “no” pile or the “to be considered pile” she says; “A really terrific cover letter can change your mind,” particularly when the candidate takes time to thoroughly research the company and explain why he or she “would be a good fit,” says Ms. Kelly.
Unfortunately, few candidates know how to write really terrific cover letters. consider the results of a recent nationwide search for an executive director of a non-profit organization. The flaws noted below, while specific to this search, are common to many. Only the identifying information has been altered to protect the guilty.
1. Inappropriate salutations. If your intent is to eliminate yourself from consideration at the outset, then the anachronism, “Dear Sirs,” will suit your purpose. Unless you have been time traveling in the 1950s, there is no excuse for using this outmoded salutation. On the nearly 100 cover letters sent by interested applicants, 36 addressed their correspondence “To The Search Committee,” 15 addressed it to “To Whom It May Concern.” and 12 opted to use “Dear Sir or Madam.” At least print the individual’s name or the name of the organization in their greeting. Others didn’t include any salutation or opened with “Dear Friends.” “Dear Sirs,” ”Dear Search Director” or “Ladies and Gentlemen.” Although many of the above approaches are acceptable, the absolute best methods is to personalize the letter. Ideally by finding the name of the person with hiring responsibility and address in your letter to him or her (with name spelled correctly). “Dear Sir(s)” should be avoided at all costs.
2. Back to basics. You don’t have to be a devotee of Strunk and White (“Elements of Style”) to know that a typo can consign your cover letter to job-search oblivion. Consider these glaring examples, which hastened the departure of candidates #6 and #7.
“Your add for an executive director…appeals directly to my background and training,” and “in reading the advertisement for this position I became very exited about this job opportunity.” Granted , not every reviewer is quite hung up on typos. However, as a petitioner, your are in no position to rely on the charity of strangers. Says Lynn Sudlow, human resources director for Geographic Data Technology Inc. in Lyme, N.H., “I absolutely hate cover letter that are messy to look at. It someone strikes out words or doesn’t take care to spell them correctly. I am not sure that I want that person representing my company.” Rather than risk also-run status, find a friend or friendly proofreader with a keen eye on catch typos before simultaneously sealing your fate and your envelope.
3. Summertime and the living is easy; My parents always tried to impress on me that “you can’t be a little bit honest.” While total honesty is always the best policy, some things are best left unsaid in cover letters. Candidates #31 and #84 would have done well to heed this admonition.
Instead, they confessed, “An opportunity such as yours would allow me to live and work in Vermont, my immediate goal for the future.” and “my wife and I have been researching career opportunities that would allow us to relocate back to Vermont on our 80 acres…” It is just me or do I detect an ulterior motive at play here? Some search committees could read the above and immediately think on-the –job retirement.
That may be a false conclusion, but there is danger suggestion that your primary motivation has change of scenery. To be fair, others may react differently to the same statements. Jody Schubert, personnel manager for Creare Inc., and engineering consulting firm in Hanover, N.H., regards strong geographic preferences as a plus.
She says that Creare prefers candidates who are “cold climate and rural tested.” An indication that a potential employee has a realistic sense of what Creare does and doesn’t offer, in Ms. Schubert’s opinion, is “a positive flag for us.” The point isn’t to abandon your relocation dream but to recognize that, by calling undue attention to your leisure agenda, rather than the company’s hiring needs, you may fail to make a compelling case for your candidacy.
4. “I started out as a child…” When recruiters initially make their way through a mound of cover letters and résumés, they have one objective in mind to get to the bottom of the pile.
Given this preoccupation, they are bound to look askance at anything that impedes their progress and makes their task more difficult. Unfortunately for candidate #51 21/2 page, single –spaced cover letter, accompanied by a lengthy résumé, qualifies as an impediment.
No matter how impressive the content, it is asking too much of corporate readers to slog twice through detailed account of all past paid and volunteer work experience.. Candidate #22 proved equally obtuse by reciting every remotely related workshop and seminar completed in the past five years. Continuing education is great, but what might be an appropriate list to enumerate for an entry level –level position may sound sophomoric when applying for a higher –level post.
5. Word processor gone awry. In an age where cover letters can be whisked out practically before the ink dries, applicants run the risk of whisking first and scrutinizing second Certainly, candidate #54 can be accused of doing more processing than proofing when he stated: “I would like to take this opportunity to introduce myself and submit my résumé for a possible (sp.) position as a Part Time Clerical Worker/Data Entry Specialist.”
Sorry, Charlie, wrong search. Eagle-eyed cover letter reviewers have grown accustomed to another phenomenon of the computer age, as exemplified by candidate #4. That is, the slapdash, one –size-fit-all model with generic text. In this case, the only words that change on the cover letter are the organization’s address. Everything else is standardized. Sadly for the candidate, the recycling bin is equally non discriminating.
6. Take me or leave me. Most recruiters take umbrage when candidates try to bowl them over with an audacious cover letter. A case in point is the individual who, several years ago, sent a yellow sticker announcing the time and place of his arrival for an interview which hadn’t been granted. Or the person who submitted a cover letter in which he cited 33 years of experience, four degrees, 46 novels published and the fact that he was “the most sympathetic feminist since Alexander.”
He was applying for a career planning position. By the same token, some wooing is acceptable, especially compared to candidate #53, who scrawled: “Dear Ladies & Gentlemen I am writing ref. your ad for an Executive Director. Enclosed is a copy of my résumé. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Short and to the point, as was our rejection. She obviously favors the minimalist style. Other minimalists simply attach a copy of the want ad to their résumé, an approach that often fails to win friends and influence decision makers Lynn Sudlow speak for many human resources professionals when she says, “I’m not impressed when someone does not take the time to make a true application.”
Speaking of time, candidate #94 did himself no favor by introducing his spit-and –polish résumé with four pages of rushed chicken scratching that we were asked to decipher. His hand written epistle include such passages as: “I am pleased to be have (crossed out) able to submit my qualifications to you and hope that I will have the opportunity to dis (crossed out) discuss the position of Executive Director with you in the near future.” That discussion, sad to say, didn’t occur.
7. Gobbledygook. If you are prone to fracturing the language, at least find somebody who can split the words for you. The doctor must have been out when candidate #49 limped in with the following entry: “I would like to pursue the opening further along with meeting with you at your earliest convenience.” Clarity in defense of job-search survival is no vice.
8. Throwing down the gauntlet. “My salary requirements are $35-40,000 and, based upon my experience and maturity, I believe this amount is justified. ”No doubt candidate #45 is correct, but we’ll never find out, since she priced herself out of contention.
This is another situation when search committees appreciate, but fail to reward, complete candor. If you wish to be invited to the interview ball, don’t scare off prospective suitors by telling them what an expensive date they can anticipate. When a job description request salary requirements, “negotiable” is always a safe response.
These examples should illustrate that the only way to put your best foot forward in a job search is to demonstrate some fancy footwork in your cover letter. And that’s no mean feat.
*Orlando Huaman is a job counselor and freelance writer. Malololelei.