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Writing a Cover Letter to Get a Job

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March 12, 2015
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Let’s start with the hard truth: No one ever got a job on the strength of a cover letter.

That’s a bold claim, but I can support it from years of engagement with Corporate America in a variety of roles. I’ve moved from freelancing to academia to the private sector, and I’ve worked in many different capacities with the people who do the hiring and firing. I’ve even made those decisions myself.

I’ve learned quite a bit about the function of cover letters and résumés. In this series of columns, I’ll be sharing some of those insights with you.

Let’s begin with your cover letter and its place in your application package. You may have heard about that study suggesting that recruiters look at a résumé for only six seconds before deciding whether to pass on a candidate. I’d wager the time spent on cover letters is even less.

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You see, every human resources professional I know has told me the same thing; they use cover letters primarily as a negative indicator, that is, not to identify potential employees but to weed out inappropriate candidates.

That sounds harsh at first, but when you think about it, it’s actually freeing. You don’t have to prove you’re the best choice. You only have to show you’re not an inappropriate candidate. That’s a much lower bar to clear.

Making sure your letter is free of misspellings and grammatical errors will help you avoid disqualification, but you must also determine what your potential employers are looking for and give them the bare minimum to get through the first round of sorting.

I mean that literally. Be as concise as you possibly can. Adding content to your cover letter does the opposite of adding value. Remember, your recruiter only has a few seconds to look at your letter; if she can’t find what she’s looking for—and fast—then your long-winded masterpiece will only land you in the discard pile.

What to Include

Contact information. Be thorough, and keep the recruiter’s perceptions in mind. Incomplete contact information can make it look like you have something to hide. If you use a post office box, include your physical address as well. If you have a landline and a cell phone, include both numbers. And get yourself a respectable e-mail address. It’s too bad the recruiter chopped you just because your e-mail was PartyBoi420@yahoo.com, but perceptions matter.

A proper addressee. Addressing your letter “To Whom It May Concern” looks unprofessional—and worse, lazy. If you really want this job, you’ll put in five minutes for a web search or phone call. Make sure to confirm the spelling of any name you get by phone, no matter how simple it sounds; there’s no surer way to get on Caryl Millar’s bad side than misspelling her name.

The full job title. Sure, if you’re applying for a part-time janitor job, it can feel silly to type out “Maintenance Specialist III (20 hour/nights),” but that’s how the company defines it, so you need to speak their language. If the job description includes a numerical code, list that too.

How you learned about the job. If you’re responding to a newspaper ad, tell them which paper. If you saw the position on a website, tell them which one. If you met a recruiter at a job fair, give them a name and mention the event. Companies monitor their recruitment efforts, and job applications show which methods are effective.

Any prerequisites mentioned in the job listing. This may be anything from certifications and degrees to having a reliable vehicle. Check the job listing for words like “must” and “required.”

Indication of availability. If the job listing mentions a specific start date, confirm that you are available on that date.

Writing a Cover Letter

What to leave out: Everything else. The anecdotes about your illustrious work history, all your hopes and dreams for a career in custom cabinetry, how you’re a quick learner and a team player, and any instance of the word “passion” need to be saved for the interview. For most jobs, cover letters should top out at four short paragraphs of pure, distilled information.

Here’s how it looks in practice.

Caryl Millar
Human Resources Director, Barn Owl Custom Cabinetry
235 Mill Hill Way
Anytown, USA
Dear Ms. Millar:

I am writing to present myself as a candidate for the staff position of Custom Cabinet Installer II, job #1075B. I do so at the recommendation of your colleague Dave McGraw, whom I met last week at the Pike County Chamber of Commerce Job Fair.

I have a decade of experience with cabinet installation and fabrication as a fully bonded contractor. I have a full set of tools and reliable transportation, and I am available for work immediately.

My résumé is enclosed. Please contact me if you have any questions or if you wish to arrange an interview. I look forward to discussing this position with you further.

Best regards,

Stuart Veneer

That’s it. The functional portion is maybe a hundred words, with no laughs, no tears, and not much in the way of stylish prose. But what prose there is has been trimmed of fat; it’s all muscle, sleek and functional. There is no word that does not convey useful information, and it only takes a few seconds to read.

It won’t get you the job, but it will get you through to the next round. We’ll talk more about that in future columns. See you then.

Jack F.

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