Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The one about cover letters

Go ahead, dude. I’ve got you covered.
A couple of days ago, I posted an entry for someone who had a question about follow-up. Apparently, he has re-thought his dilemma and realizes that he got a little ahead of his game, because his question after that post was…
Next blog topic should be on cover letter writing. I pride myself on being a good writer and I think those things are horribly awkward to write.
While that seems easy, it is not so definitive and you’ll see why in a moment. Before I go there, let me express my continued surprise at the typical question that I get from students about cover letters. That question is, “What is a cover letter?” I suppress the urge most of the time to retort with a sardonic quip. It seems quite evident to me that a cover letter should “cover” your application… physically and figuratively. Sometimes a student will ask, “Why do I need a cover letter if I am sending my resume?” My general response is, “Your cover letter should be a roadmap to resume. It tells them where to look on your resume for specific requirements for their job.” It’s when I get the latter question, that I realize the validity of the former question.

To cover or not to cover, that is the question.
When I hire someone, I am always impressed at candidates who take the extra time to write a letter to accompany their resume and application. Not simply because they took the time to write it, but because our online process is fairly archaic and managing to get a cover letter through it shows real tenacity. When I review an application, if there is a cover letter, I read it before even glancing at the resume.

To make things a bit more difficult, we often have recruiters tell us that they dislike cover letters and see no added value to them. So what is the difference? Generally, college recruiters are seeking entry-level employees or they are screening applicants for a hiring manager. In such cases, they are likely reviewing several hundred applicants per day and actually reading a letter would be too time consuming. In my case, I am hiring mid-career professionals and am interested in seeing a candidate’s writing style and better understanding their background prior to applying for the job we are flying.

The bottom line? When in doubt, write the letter.

Dang! What’s in that thing?
There is a little controversy among cover letter adherents. Some people think that they should be very brief, as in really short. I am of the opinion that if you are going to write a 100-word letter that essentially says, “Here is my resume. Call me,” then you should not waste your time.

Think about it this way. Every cover letter has three parts. The “Hello-It’s-Me Part,” the “Here’s-What-I-Do Part,” and the “This-Is-When-I-Am-Available Part.”

Hello It’s Me
Brief and to the point here. It should communicate your title, current whereabouts, and why you are bothering them. It can be as simple as…
My name is Darryl Stevens and I am currently the Associate Marketing Director at Bozo’s Clown Laundry and Brake Shop. I feel that my substantial experience in marketing and public relations would be a good fit for the position of Senior Marketing Analyst at Gumby Shake and Brake
This Is When I Am Available
I am going to jump to the end because the availability information is pretty straightforward as well. It goes something like this.
In short, I feel that I would be able to bring much useful experience to Gumby, Inc. Although I am currently completing a major project that occupies much of my time, I would be able to arrange sometime to discuss my suitability for your position. Feel free to contact me at you convenience.
Here’s What I Do
For the most part, cover letters should be constructed to convey how your qualifications match someone else’s job or, as indicated above, they should be a roadmap to your resume. As an example, listed below is a partial list of responsibilities and required skills for a senior marketing position. Often one’s resume may contain this experience, but it may be difficult for a recruiter or manager to decode. Your letter should help them.
(1) Manage and lead Market and Product marketing team
(2) Serve as regional leadership of strategy & planning
(3) Develop strategic briefs for assigned products for the development of National and Regional plans
Required Skills
(4) Minimum of 5 years of developing strategic marketing plans
(5) Strong ability to quickly and concisely build influential business cases
(6) Strong presentation development skills and the ability to give highly influential presentations
(7) Proven ability to quickly bring new programs/tactics to implementation often with incomplete and imperfect information
(8) Proven ability to lead others often without formal authority
A quick narrative means of addressing these items would be as follows. (Note that the parentheses indicate how the narrative addresses job requirements.)
I have been in marketing for over nine years, the last six (4) as Associate Director of Marketing at Bozo’s (1) where I was tasked with the job of producing briefs (3) and executive summaries for marketing initiatives. I learned a subtle leadership style to aid in those times when I had coordinate activities of employees who did not report to me. (8) I participated in all strategic planning events (2) for regional and national campaigns, typically as the primary spokesperson in presentations used to influence (5) other divisions to quickly adopt proposed tactics (7) for marketing assigned products. (3)
The "Here's-What-I-Do" part can be more than a paragraph and is the place that you leverage not only the requirements listed on the job, but additional skill sets you have such as writing a blog or being the Jenga champion of your unit or the technology skills that you have that might be unusual for someone in your position.

Last minute thoughts.

Length - Yes, it is true that concision is valued more than articulation, but short is over-rated. I don't think that a full page cover letter is unreasonable and there may be call to move to a second page. If you are considering a third page, you have gone too far... way too far.

Tone - Business. Strictly business. Please do not start a cover letter with "Hi!" and close with a simple "Very truly yours" or "Sincerely."

Contact information - You can do it anyway you wish, but I always include full mail address, email, and phone number after my name under my signature.

To whom - If you know exactly who is getting the letter, then start it, "Dear Ms. Smith." If you are unsure, I would recommend "Dear selection committee" or "Dear Hiring Manager." No to "Dear Sir or Madame" or "To whom it may concern."

Arranging contact - Just above, I told you how to leave your contact information. Under no circumstances should you end a letter with the following. "Thank you for reviewing my resume. I will be contacting you in the next few days to discuss this position." Well, you can write that if you don't want the job. You left your contact information. They are grown-ups. They can figure it out.

Paper, ink, etc. - You might use this information for resumes and CV's, too. Do not buy extra fancy cotton bond paper with the elegant pieces of linen in the paper. Nobody cares. Often, the HR clerk will make ten copies of your resume and cover letter on really cheap institutional copy paper and send it to hiring managers. A plain 20 lb. 92 bright copy paper will do.

Email - Sure. Why not. If the application process is emailing your resume as an attachment, then attach the cover letter as well. I would also copy the cover letter as the body of the email.

In the final analysis, a cover letter will convey who you are much more personally than a resume or CV. That can work for you or against you. Your letter should strike a balance between being professional communication that allows a prospective a window on your personal style in the workplace.

PS. To my East Coast Idea Manager. Does this help?


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