Cover Letters: Not Extinct, Just Evolved
The paperless world of electronic job boards means you don't need a cover letter any more, right? Well, actually, no.
So you can just send your cover letter as an attachment with your resume?
But you can send the same cover letter for every posting you answer?
No, no, no. And once more for good measure: No.
While the medium has changed, the message is still the same: Cover letters - even electronic ones - have to be carefully constructed, well-written, error-free, customized to the criteria of each job, and addressed to a specific person. Avoid fancy typefaces, crazy ink colors, exuberant punctuation and emoticons. Sound well-educated (but not pompous), professional (but not uptight) and enthusiastic (but not chatty).
No one said this would be easy.
The first paragraph should make the recipient want to read the second paragraph. And the whole letter should make him want to read your resume. Ultimately, what you're sending is a sales pitch - and you're the goods.
A cover letter, says Marilyn Bird, regional manager of professional staffing services for Robert Half International, "is a way to introduce yourself and to try to make a positive first impression." Additionally, she says, "It's more personal than a resume."
That doesn't mean you should say you just lost 20 pounds and played your best round of golf ever. Rather, describe why you're interested in the position, demonstrate your knowledge of the business, and highlight what you bring to the table. "Go to the Internet and spend 20 minutes looking at what the organization does. Read the position description and talk about your strong points and how they will help or fit the goals of the organization," suggests Ed Stern, a former Wall-Streeter turned executive-search consultant at Seiden Krieger Associates in Manhattan. "When you mention any great qualities you bring, they should really be on target. 'Dear HR Consultant: Attached please find my resume' doesn't do it. And a bad cover letter can cost you the job."
Keywords: Employers use software like Resumix to sort through cover letters and resumes for certain pre-selected keywords. If you're applying for a job at a large company, chances are your materials will be searched this way. In fact, says John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, "Assume you're the only one who will read your resume and cover letter all the way through." If you're concerned about just which nouns are the keywords the company is looking for, Challenger suggests seeking clues in the job posting itself. When you respond, he says, "There may be keywords in your skill set."
Subject lines: Challenger says the subject line probably is the "most crucial" element of an e-cover letter, "especially at small companies that don't have sophisticated technology. You need something that hits the nail on the head and says your experience is right on target, based on the qualifications they say they're looking for." If you know someone at the company you're writing to, use their name in the subject line. Challenger recommends something like, "Mutual friend John Ross suggests meeting."
Length: The jury is out on this one. An e-cover letter can run longer than a paper one (which traditionally is one page), says Challenger. However, Bird believes two paragraphs should be sufficient. More, "is a distraction for people on the receiving end, especially when they're dealing with a high volume of responses," she says. Additionally, she cautions, "if you submit electronically, do not mail paper versions with the same material. That only confuses employers."
Format: Even if you enjoy being the biggest iconoclast on the planet, and even if you think of your cover letter as just another e-mail, go for the traditional business letter format with a date, a salutation, and a "sincerely yours." If you're sending paper, avoid colors. "Use good English. No typos. Present yourself professionally. Just use your head and send something that, if you received it, you'd be impressed by," says Stern.
Stern adds a good cover letter will intrigue him enough to read the CV it came with, even if the applicant's skills are "a little out of the box" for the position. And that's exactly what you want your cover letter to do.