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Test Your Cover Letter Acumen

How much do you know about writing cover letters? Are you a semi-pro who just needs a little fine-tuning and a constructive suggestion or two? Are you a self-effacing neophyte who doesn't know where to begin? Or are you a job search commando who assumes his knowledge of the subject will guarantee him an easy win in cover letter combat?

To find out if your self perception is on target, spend a few minutes on the cover letter quiz below which contains some common cover letter facts and myths. Don't be too hard on yourself if some of your answers are incorrect. If you were completely informed on the subject, you wouldn't be reading this column.

Cover Letter Quiz

1. T F Every cover letter should have three main thoughts.
2. T F One good cover letter will work for every employer.
3. T F A cover letter should convey your personality, style, and taste.
4. T F Employers don't expect perfection. A typo in your cover letter isn't a sufficient reason to reject your resume.
5. T F Employers are primarily looking for mention of specific job knowledge in your cover letter. If you concentrate more on your transferable skills than your technical ones, you will automatically be relegated to the round file.
6. T F The best source of information to tailor your cover letter to a potential employer or job is people.
7. T F Sending out hundreds of the same cover letters resumes via direct mail is a good use of your time because they reach so many employers simultaneously.
8. T F The percent of job seekers who find jobs by responding to ads is quite small versus the number of people who use them.

Answers

1. Every cover letter should have three main thoughts. True

Did the word "every" bamboozle you, because you thought that every, always, and never are dead giveaways to a false statement? This question is a good example of how the exception proves the rule.

All good cover letters should include:

  • Why you are specifically interested in the potential employer
  • Why the employer should be particularly interested in you
  • When and how you will be contacting your addressee to follow up on your letter and schedule an appointment.

This approach sets you apart from your competition, states exactly why an employer needs to talk to you, and makes clear your intention to proactively pursue this opportunity.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world where you always know the names of the company and the individual you are contacting and the specific qualifications required for the job. If you are replying to a blind ad which only gives a box number or provides a hazy or nonexistent job description, you can't compose an ideal cover letter. Consequently, you should carefully consider the likelihood of a semi-generic letter yielding positive results, given the poor response rate for situations where you can't initiate personal contact. If you decide the opening is worth pursuing, go for it, but don't waste your time on marginal possibilities.

2. One good cover letter will work for every employer. False

Your cover letter and resume should be targeted sales tools, not generic bits of prose which attempt to be all things to all people. Consider how a salesperson approaches a customer who might be interested in a product or service. First, she determines the client's specific needs. Then she prepares a verbal/written proposal highlighting how she will fulfill them. She knows that discussing extraneous products is a waste of everyone's valuable time.

Cover letters that go to companies unsolicited or in response to an ad generally have a very poor track record for getting their writers jobs, because they fail to address the potential employer's needs and expectations. If you want your cover letter and resume to result in an interview, do the necessary research and tailoring it takes to grab the recruiter's attention and make him want to see you.

3. A cover letter should convey your personality, style and taste. True

Cover letters written by professional cover letter writers can be deadly, especially if they are developed with little or no input from you. All of us have pet phrases and formats when we write. If you give a resume consultant a free hand in composing your letter, you may not recognize yourself as the individual he is trying to sell.

To assure that your letter represents you personally, write it yourself or, if you are consumed by writer's block, collaborate with a savvy professional. Your ideas and phraseology should play a pivotal role in helping your letter stand out from the crowd and giving the recruiter a tantalizing glimpse of your potential contribution to his organization.

4. Employers don't expect perfection. A typo in your cover letter isn't a sufficient reason to reject an application. False

Even the most understanding employer will be very critical of typos in your cover letter and resume because she assumes you are exhibiting your very best effort in these two documents. If she sees a mistake in one of them, it is only natural for her to question your attention to detail and your concern for quality.

Before you give or send a cover letter to anyone, ask a friend to review it. Because you have written it yourself, you may automatically read what you intend to say, rather than what is actually there. Your friend, on the other hand, has no preconceived notions about what is supposed to be on the paper and is much more likely to catch a missing "and" or a misspelled word.

If you decide to use a service to send out a number of resumes for you, always check each document before it is mailed. Like the taxpayer whose income tax return is audited because his accountant made a mistake, the buck stops with you. Your cover letter preparer may feel just terrible about his unfortunate glitch, but it's your career that's on the line.

5. Employers are primarily looking for mention of specific job knowledge in your cover letter. If you concentrate more on your transferable skills than your technical ones, you will automatically be relegated to the round file. False

If you talk to potential employers in networking appointments, read the candidate criteria in the want ads and discuss the necessary qualifications for an opening with an executive recruiter, you will see that, along with technical skills, most companies want professionals with good communication and organizational abilities. Working cooperatively on a team and setting priorities are skills that come naturally to some people, but not everyone. They are intrinsic aptitudes that improve with use. Like other transferable skills such as initiative, creativity, empathy, physical coordination, attention to detail, etc., we are either born with the rudiments of them in place, or we're not.

Fortunately, all of us have some valuable functional skills to market along with our technical knowledge. And, as we progress from hands on tasks to management, these skills become increasingly important, until they eventually overshadow our technical expertise as critical indicators of our ability to perform the job. Have you noticed how a number of boards of directors have chosen CEO's from other industries to bring fresh ideas to their corporations? In selecting these individuals the board members were more interested in the candidate's personality and track record for getting the job done than his specific background in potato chips or high-tech widgets.

Do not delude yourself into thinking that technical knowledge alone will be the deciding factor in whether or not you are chosen for an opening. Be sure to sell your transferable skills in your cover letters and resumes just as vigorously as your specialized ones because a combination of both is usually expected in a winning candidate.

6. The best source of information to tailor your cover letter to a potential employer or job is people. True

Going to the library to get information about industries and companies is a worthwhile, but arms-length activity. When you want to find out the real scoop on what is happening, people will always be your best resource. Humans are social beings who are constantly forming professional alliances, information conduits and personal relationships in their day-to-day living. They are generally eager to share their insights, opinions and facts with anyone who exhibits a genuine interest. Taking advantage of human nature when you are researching the job market will provide you with access to inside information on companies, industries, job openings, personalities and contacts.

7. Sending out hundreds of the same cover letters resumes via direct mail is a good use of your time because they reach so many employers simultaneously. False

Typically, direct mail campaigns result in a response rate of one to five percent. Consequently, you would have to mail at least 100 targeted cover letters and resumes to get one to five interview invitations.

If you want to achieve the best results in sending unsolicited cover letters to potential employers you must tailor them to the individual companies you genuinely think need your expertise. You can find these firms by doing some research at the library to determine the organizations which have the structures, missions, and jobs that match what you want and have to offer. By both telling them what you like about them and how your experience may benefit their bottom line, you may be able to secure an interview to further expand upon your credentials in person.

Following up on your initial contact may also substantially increase your chances of getting together with a potential employer. Be sure you always mention in your letter that you will be calling to schedule an appointment. Then do it. Employers like to be pursued by worthwhile candidates.

8. The percent of job seekers who find jobs by responding to ads is quite small versus the number of people who use them. True

Statistics quoting the percentage of job seekers who actually find positions through want ads vary greatly. Eighteen to twenty percent is on the high end of the estimates. One to four percent probably represents a more accurate figure. If you decide to use ads as part of your job search, keep these numbers in mind.

Also, recognize that one of the reasons these statistics are so dismal is that job seekers tend to send the same resume and often the same cover letter to every ad they answer. When employers receive 100-200 responses to an ad, they can afford to be very finicky about whom they choose to interview. If they average 30-60 seconds in their initial scan of a cover letter, it had better grab their attention, or they will never even read the resume.

To put punch into your cover letter you should make certain it addresses both the most important requirements listed in the ad and gives a unique reason why you are interested in the company. Starting your letter with, " This letter is in response to your ad in the Morning News dated November 3," and going on to say that, " I know my qualifications are a good match for the position," hardly starts an employer's hiring juices flowing. In the battle to be chosen for the interview stack, you must tailor or die.


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