How to Write An Effective COVER LETTER that Opens Doors
Cover Letters are one of the most perplexing challenges for the Job Seeker. The Job Ads ask for one. The guides all suggest we send one. Why is it that so many resumes go out without a proper cover letter? (most of them may never be read, but they will be… for the right candidates)
Careful taking license with what I just said: Yes, most cover letters will never be read.
In a world where there are often 3–5,000 resumes sent in for every good open job, it’s pretty easy to realize the truth in what I’m saying by looking at the mechanics of the situation: who will read all of that material sent in when applying for a job (thousands of resume, notes and cover letters)?
The reality is such that if our Resume ‘never grabs their attention’, it’s very unlikely they will every go back to read our email, notes or cover letters that we also send to help ‘make our case’. That thought can be quite disconcerting, but it’s a realistic conclusion if you start questioning who may have the bandwidth to handle all that extra work. No one will have time to read your persuasive thoughts –unless your Resume makes the final cut… so be sure to start your focus there!
Now that you (believe) you have a great Resume that positions and sells your best attributes, your cover letter can make the difference between you getting the interview, and someone else taking that prize. You do have to be ‘in it’ to win it.
WHAT IS A COVER LETTER AND WHAT’S ITS PURPOSE?
Glad you asked:
A cover Letter is your opportunity to separate yourself from all the rest that claim to have the background that will make them successful, if selected.
Your Cover Letter’s mission in life is to connect all the dots in your background that make you uniquely qualified above all others for the role. That does not mean that you are claiming to have ‘everything’ on their list, but it means that you have all the ‘right’ pieces that will make you more successful than the other candidates. That’s a tall order and tall claim, with your Cover Letter giving you the platform to make your case.
Be bold, confident and make your case. Avoid the most common mistake: subservience. Businesses that real problems, and they need real solutions. They need workers ready to ‘step up’ to the challenge. Confidence. Not someone asking for a hand-out, “Please, Sir, Can I have some more?” –That subservience may appeal to a very small percentage of readers, by not by Leaders, and not by people that want to see their organization be even greater than it may be.
On Style, this item of concern to watch out for, letting the language choices become submissive, is a pointed challenge to us. We want the job so much (sometimes) that we are willing to become Play Dough: just tell me what you want, and I’ll be that. Perfect, for managers without any confidence of their own, as you’ll be less likely to challenge them if they hire you. But most would not think that’s a very good place for your career.
Back to the language choices:
The statistics for the many placements I have been involved in over the years (most every discipline / area, as a recruiter and recruiting trainer) always showed the pattern heavily favoring this type of language choice, even though it can be quite direct. It’s Chemistry and Confidence that win the day, when capable of the role, and this goes a long way on the confidence side.
Most hiring managers are like everyone else: they’re looking for ‘clear’ help in the process of selecting you… because they (many times) don’t really understand how to hire effectively. In other words, we have to ‘educate’ them in both our outreach, and during interview process on:
“why it’s the best choice that they’ll make, when they choose to hire us.”
– An opening paragraph that expresses our interest in their company and the role, and makes our ‘big picture’ case for why we are the best candidate for the position.
– 2 or 3 subsequent paragraphs that ‘make the case in detail’ for the points claimed in our opening paragraph.
– A closing summary paragraph that ‘wraps up’ our persuasive argument and asks for the interview. (no one gets hired without an interview, so go for it –it’s the whole point of the outreach)
A note on content itself: When selecting what to include or highlight, be sure not to get too distracted by only the literal items in the job posting. Include them if we can, so we create a ‘perfect match’ to the job posting. But… Add in what you think are the important things to have –if you were hiring for this role. Most Job Postings do not accurately represent the background / skills of the actual person eventually hired, so use your expertise to ‘imagine’ what other items not listed in the Job Posting would the ‘best candidate’ need to succeed? Sell what makes you valuable, especially if overqualified (just never use the term overqualified, seasoned, etc.).
Remember: We are teaching them to select us, and to hire us, to solve their issues.
As I mentioned, most hiring folks (and HR folks) have little clear idea of how to locate, identify and recognize the very ‘best-of-the-best’ individuals for the position, even though that’s part of their job. So, we need to help them by making it easy to see us as the ‘problem-solver for their issues’, not simply to assemble our background (reasons to hire us) and ‘hope’ they see it the way we do. Those extra steps to naturally lead them down the path to seeing us as ‘the one’ are effective time and time again, though not with every individual. We still must work the larger odds and this approach does work with most that are trying to evaluate potential hires.
LENGTH OF COVER LETTERS:
This requires us to be as ‘long as necessary’ to get the reader to their natural conclusion: “I have to interview this person!” (but, as ‘short as possible’ to accomplish the result of: “I have to interview this person!”). Not longer than a single page, in most cases.
TONE, TENOR & APPROACH:
While I like snappy over not being snappy, I also want to avoid anything flashy or any gimmickry that will distract from the true message of the letter (“You have to interview this person!”).
Remember they may be looking at dozens of cover letters, and yours needs to compete, but only once they narrow the resumes down to the potentially most interesting choices. Once your cover letter does get read, it’s your chance to catch their attention, which could happen through something snappy if you get just the right reader, or most often, it’s from the letter hitting ‘their bullseye’, rather than ours (focus on a style that they are likely to respond to… not on how we might respond to that style).
We also need to avoid what can be potential missteps, be careful not to introduce doubt about whether or not you may be the right one (“Perhaps I may be the person who..”). You, of course, either are or are not the person that can solve their problems, and they really are looking for us to help them see that connection, rather than introducing uncertainty. This strikes at the core reason they will (or will not) choose us: confidence. When capable for the roles that we go after, it all comes down to that chemistry and confidence, and anything that chips away at their confidence in choosing us works to motive in the other direction.
Don’t be stiff, or too formal. Think about one valuable individual reaching out to another valuable individual (you and the manager). Never (in writing or in person) speak up to anyone, and never, of course, speak down to anyone. Think about the tone used when writing to a dear friend. Engage them.
IT’S ABOUT THEM (before it’s about you):
Everyone needs a job –it can’t be about that or it’s not interesting at all. Why are you interested in them? What excites you about them, the Job, the Manager? Tell them! And then connect in a few of your best points that are valuable to them (not the things you like to talk about, but what you think they’d like to hear about).
WHERE IT GOES OFF TRACK:
In my view, over many many successful placements, and coaching others to many successful hires, by the time the reader finally gets to reading the cover letter (typically only very late in the process), they are already very worn down by the avalanche of emails, resumes and cover letters of all varieties that just fail to ‘close the deal’ (“
Here’s exactly why I’m going to be the best hire.”).
Almost all letters rely on the reader ‘somehow connecting all of those the dots by themselves’, and then (hopefully) coming to the conclusion in the same way that we see it. Better to leave as little as possible to chance and connect those dots in the form of the persuasive argument, or case for hire. But stay specific, and please don’t include the kitchen sink, as minutia just clouds your value to them.
Over the course of a number of outreach activities / applications for positions, cover letters of the style that I recommend tend to produce the interview more often than less direct styles that simply plead, “Please pick me!” (you are not a flower)
BUT… “that doesn’t sound like me”
A cover letter isn’t ‘us’… it’s a formalized letter introducing ourselves as the best choice for the role. Our chance to win them over on the chemistry side with ‘who we really are,’ comes once the interview and screening process begins, and our discussion is underway.
Now Let’s Work on those Cover Letters
and Open More Doors!
Author, Career Coach & Speaker
on Job Search and Career Management
© John Crant
As seen and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, on FINS.com, on CareerBuilder’s CBsalary.com, on The Ladders, in The New York Post, The Huffington Post, in Essence magazine, in CRAIN’S New York Business, on Forbes.com, in amNY, and on CNN, BBC, FOX News, Arise TV – John shares the answers and the concrete steps for success in Job Search.
John is a Featured Speaker at The New York Public Library’s JOB SEARCH CENTRAL, as well as at the YMCA in New York City, and is a Social Media expert for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program.
He speaks at Corporate Events, works with Workforce Development organizations, and teaches both students and alumni with this Self-Recruiter® Series for Colleges and Universities.
Changing the Rules: How to Be Your Own Recruiter &
Ride the Economic Crisis to Your Next Career Challenge.
© 2009 John Crant
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