Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How to Find a Job: Some Thoughts on Cover Letters

(This article is part of a book called How to Find a Job, which now is available as an ebook on Kindle, nook, and Smashwords. All of the chapters have been revised, many have been expanded, and the book contains three bonus chapters (including Negotiating) that are not available on this blog.)

One of the things that surprised me when I went to networking meetings was how controversial cover letters were.
A few people I encountered didn’t see the point in including them at all, since most of the jobs they applied for online didn’t specifically say that they wanted one, and a few didn’t include a place for you to upload one.
But guess what? You need a cover letter. Period. This may change in ten years, but for now, keep writing them and keep including them with your résumé.
On the opposite end of the spectrum were the tweakers – the guys who would spend hours perfecting each cover letter in a myriad of ways in hopes that the HR person who glanced at it would see all the key words they had included in the job ad, and immediately run to the hiring manager screaming, “This is the guy!”
As far as I know, that never happened to anyone either.
I had my own problems with cover letters.
When I was hunting for a job, I found the cover letter to be the most frustrating aspect of the search. After all, my résumé was generally set in stone. But each cover letter often required special alterations. The name of the job. The person I was sending it to.
Here’s what I do know:
About half the time, no one reads your cover letter. I once spent an hour perfecting a letter, only to discover that the computer system I was uploading it to didn’t have a spot for me to append a cover letter.
To get around this, some people put their cover letter in the body of their résumé, which would probably work very well. However, I’d recommend that you first save your résumé as a new file name so you don’t end up sending other jobs your résumé and an inappropriate cover letter.
In other words, if you’re going to add your cover letter to your résumé save the file as something like Your Full Name Résumé and Cover Letter Company Name.doc.
Another thing that surprised me was just how afraid so many people were of writing cover letters because they felt that they “weren’t writers.”
Now, granted, I am a writer, and I was a little lost as well. But I had a fancy-pants company helping me write my letter, so I had less to worry about.
In the end, however, I used a format I pulled up off the Internet. And it got me interviews, and both my job search company and the Department of Workforce Development gave me a thumbs-up on it.
So if you’re struggling with it, here’s the letter format than worked for me.
1. First, let’s talk salutation.
Your letter should always begin with the name of the person who posted the advertisement. It needs to read
Dear John Smith:
And because it’s business letter format, there should be a colon after Smith, and not a comma. Why? I don’t know. I learned the rule when I was in high school, and it appears whoever is in charge of these things says business = colon.
If the job posting doesn’t tell you who to contact, it might be worth your time to call the company and get the name of the person who will be vetting the job. At the very least, write:
Dear Hiring Manager:
But try to avoid that if at all possible.
2. Next, your first paragraph.
What you need here is to tell them what job you’re applying for.
I am writing to you in reference to the Chicken Farmer position.
I am sending you my résumé in reference to your search for a Chicken Farmer.
That’s it. That’s your opening paragraph.
3. Tell them a bunch of reasons you’d be great for the job.
I think this paragraph was the portion of the résumé that caused people to pull their hair out. Because most books, articles, and pros on the job search tell you that this is where you brag about your qualifications.
But, of course, you don’t want to brag too much.
And also, you want to make sure you’re using the same terminology that the job posting uses, because if they called it a Chicken Farmer, and you were a Chicken Worker, and they had the same job responsibilities but different titles, well, then they’ll probably throw away your résumé without even looking at it, even though you’re perfect for the job, right? Right?
Frankly, fear does funny things to people.
Remember, this paragraph isn’t going to be what gets you the job. All it has to do is get people to read your résumé. A single paragraph can’t take the place of a one or two page document. So don’t try.
What you want to do is hit a few highlights. So if you were a Chicken Farmer in the past, your paragraph should look something like this:
I have two years of experience as a Chicken Farmer. My duties included sorting chicks, interacting with customers both chicken and human, feed purchasing, and general chicken maintenance. In 2010 received the Poultry in Motion award on two separate occasions, for being chicken farmer of the month.
Now, if you haven’t ever been a Chicken Farmer, things get a little more tricky. What you need to do is convince the person reading your letter that you have work skills that are similar, or ones that would translate to the new job.
Let’s pretend you were an auto mechanic. You might try:
While I am new to the field of Chicken Farming, I feel my years as an auto mechanic will serve me well in the posted position. As a mechanic, I interacted a great deal with customers, and was frequently praised for providing explanations they could easily understand. I also have a strong memory for diagnostics – once I knew how to spot a problem with a model of car, I was able to recall it much more easily the second time. And I feel that chicken feed selection and purchasing will be very similar to the selection and purchasing of auto parts.
Now, I can’t say the above paragraph is perfect, but it does demonstrate that you’re a hard worker and that you have valuable skills that might be just what the chicken farm is looking for.
Finally, your letter needs a quick closer:
As requested, my résumé and three references are attached to this email. If you wish to contact me at this position, please call me at 555-555-5555 or email me at emailaddress@emailaddress.com. I look forward to hearing from you.
John Smith
1234 Fake Address Way
City, State Zip Code
Are there other tweaks you can make? There are probably hundreds.
Amongst the many people I’ve spoken with, I’ve seen letters that carefully bullet-pointed the things the job posting asked for, and make a list of ways they matched that list. So, for example, they’d write
You Want:
Four years of chicken farming experience. Excellent customer service skills.
I Have:
Six years chicken farming experience.
Two Poultry in Motion awards for customer service.
Did this work? Well, some of those people got jobs. So it must have worked on someone.
Beyond that, here are a few thoughts that might help.
First, always make sure you remember to tweak your cover letter for each individual job. You’ll get a lot of postings that look exactly alike on the surface, but they will almost certainly have one or two different requirements listed. Try to address those requirements as much as you can.
Keep things in a positive light. Your letter shouldn’t say “Though I have no experience in chicken farming.” It should say, “I have experience in this other thing, which is LIKE chicken farming.”
Get someone to read over your letters before you send them. I had my wife read all of my letters, which probably got boring for her over time. But I sent out over 250 cover letters without a typo.
Finally, save all your letters in an easy-to-access folder. And save the document with an easy-to-remember name as well. Don’t call it Cover Letter 3. Call it Big Farm Chicken Farmer Cover Letter. Why? So if you apply for other chicken farming jobs, you can copy and paste the text into a new letter and tweak it, instead of trying to recreate your letter from scratch, or spend hours hunting your email sent items trying to figure out when you sent the letter.
One final story:
In all the time I spent hunting for work, I encountered three sets of people who hadn’t even looked at my résumé when I went into the interview.
One was an emergency situation where a totally different person was given my résumé and asked to meet with me at the last minute.
One person met with me based on the recommendation of another person, and pulled out my résumé just as I was walking in the door.
And the last person? Brought me in based solely on my cover letter. He liked it because, well, it was short, to the point, told him that I had the skills he needed, and most importantly, it was typo-free.
If all you have to do to stand out from the pack is send out a letter with no errors in it, then it’s worth your time to do it right. So please, do it right.


  1. great .. thank you for this advice