Cover letter mistakes that spell rejection

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Orlando Huaman*

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.

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