The Cover Letter Dilemma: To Write or Not to Write
By Ruth Glover and Taunee Besson
"By the time a cover letter arrives on my desk, it better be good!" said Alyson Cate, vice-president of Human Resources at Lyrick Corporation, a privately held company in Allen, Texas, which produces children's programs featuring Barney, the Dinosaur and Wishbone, the Dog for PBS. Alyson is rarely involved with most of the hiring, but for key positions within the company, she reviews candidate documentation and frequently interviews applicants. An executive who fails to impress her with his written communication probably won't go any farther in the selection process.
Not all recruiters agree on the importance of cover letters. "I hardly ever
read them," said Bob Bennett, Senior Recruiting Consultant for Alcatel, a $33
Billion telecommunications company. And, according to John Madsen, a Seattle
contract recruiter for the internet firm, Alta Vista, "I read the cover letter
only if I cannot grasp what the candidate wants to do from the resume within
about 30 seconds." Given the range of recruiter opinions, do you really need a
cover letter with your resume? If you do, what should it say?
Whether recruiters read them or not, it's always smart to include a cover letter because it provides an opportunity to showcase information not included in your resume. Your cover letter should be a carefully polished gem that grabs your reader's attention and improves your chance of getting an interview. If you are applying for a position that requires writing, you can lay odds your cover letter will be examined carefully. A savvy recruiter will evaluate your writing for its clarity and fit with the corporate culture. Your words will count. If you are seeking a management job where written communication will be a key to your success, you can bet your cover letter will be scrutinized for its content and readability. The higher the position, the more your letter will help or hurt your chances for an interview.
Let's take a look at how to create a complimentary letter that will add genuine
value to your resume. First of all, it must be concise. Since recruiters spend
about 10 seconds per resume, they often don't take time to read the cover
letter. If they do, they look for targeted information they can quickly grasp.
If your letter is more than one page, it's too long. Consequently, it's wise to
start with a rough draft and keep revising it until every remaining word is
vital to its content.
You'll want to put your name, address, phone and fax numbers and your email address at the top of the page. Check the spelling and numbers several times. You don't want an employer to discard your resume or cover letter because he can't reach you. A recruiter would rather talk with you during the day, so include your work phone, if you can. If the best way to reach you is a cell phone, be sure to note that number on both your resume and cover letter, in case they become separated.
If your address changes during your job search, send another resume and cover
letter for the positions that interest you. A recruiter won't take the time to
change data on your old resume.
The First Paragraph
The first paragraph of your letter should state how you found out about the job
opening. Most companies keep records to determine which sources are most
productive in attracting promising people. If you saw the job in an
advertisement, mention the newspaper, the date and the title of the job you
want. Recruiters work too rapidly to guess your objective. To say you are
applying for a "telecommunications position" is far too nebulous. If you are a
Systems Analyst or Project Manager in telecommunications, say so.
If you've researched the company, be sure to mention why you are particularly
interested in it. Alluding to its products, philosophy or reputation coupled
with sending the letter to the correct recruiter (if you can find out who it
is), gives you an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.
If you know someone at the company, feel free to mention that person, if it's in
your best interest. Your acquaintance with a director or manager may either
help (or hinder) your search. Drop a name only if the person appreciates your
work and will speak highly of your contribution. It would also be advisable to
get permission to refer to your contact ahead of time.
The Second Paragraph
Cover letters must provide customized information in addition to what's in your
resume. The buzz word these days is "value added." How can your cover letter
add value to your resume? Talk about some of your soft skills, such as
teamwork, initiative and organizational ability. Cite a specific reason why you
are the ideal candidate for the position, then customize your letter to prove
Recruiters would rather read about your accomplishments than see trite phrases
such as "excellent communication skills." They want to know the specifics of
what you have done. If you want to illustrate your excellent communication
skills, you might mention your weekly sales briefings to top management or your
speech to an audience of 500 people.
Using lists or bulleting your applicable accomplishments is another good way to
highlight your experience. The example below shows you how to match your
qualifications with the criteria required in a very readable format.
Prefer MBA with Technical undergraduate degree
Minimum of three years sales experience
Five years technical sales support in an engineering environment
Experience in marketing
Designed & implemented four marketing campaigns
Excellent communication skills
Adept at public speaking and writing, especially involving the roll-out
of software products
The Closing Paragraph
Before you close your letter, tell the recruiter you will follow up to confirm
receipt of your resume and set an interview appointment, if appropriate.
Employers like candidates with initiative and perseverance. Proactive pursuit
on your part may increase your chance for an interview unless you've been told
specifically not to call. Persistent enthusiasm will generally take you farther
than benign neglect.
A Few Other Words of Wisdom
Chris saw an ad for several positions with a high-tech company in the St. Louis
area. He was interested in both Tech Writer and Tech Trainer. He sent separate
cover letters and resumes for each job. Was this duplication of effort redundant
or necessary? While it may not matter, Chris is more likely to be considered
for both positions with this method. If a company is large, recruiters have
responsibility for specific jobs. Sending one cover letter and resume may
result in Chris being considered for only one opportunity when he has skills for
Speaking of high-tech, many computer literate candidates are e-mailing resumes
these days. "If you use the internet in your job search, your best bet is to
include your cover letter as part of the text," according to James Sale of
Westech Career Fairs, corporate owner of Virtual Job Fair, one of the premier
resume posting sites on the internet. If you send your letter and resume as one
document, it will reach its destination intact.
When it comes to cover letters, "To write or not to write?" is a question you
should answer in the affirmative. While most recruiters agree your resume is
more important, a clear, concise, carefully-tailored cover letter will often
tip the interview decision in your favor.