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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.

The Heading

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 your point.

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.

Your Needs My Qualifications
Prefer MBA with Technical undergraduate degree BSEE, MBA
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 both jobs.

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.

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