After more than two decades in the Executive Search
business, I have learned a lot about what goes into a
successful hire. I try to impart my knowledge to both hiring
managers and candidates. Nevertheless, at many job
interviews I find myself listening to questions that make me
cringe and answers that make me want to cry.
Now it's my turn to talk.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Your Appetizing Cover Letter

Have you ever ruined your appetite for a great dinner by eating too much before the meal?

Keep this in mind when you compose a cover letter to accompany your resume.  Like a well-apportioned appetizer, the purpose of a cover letter is to stimulate interest in what comes next, not to star as the main event.  In other words, a cover letter should deliver enough information to pique the reader’s interest in your resume, and not enough to eliminate any interest in reading further.

Last week, I asked a professional currently engaged in a job search to send me a copy of his cover letter and resume.  He promptly responded, sending an acceptable resume accompanied by a rather wordy 2-page cover letter.  I immediately saw a problem.  A cover letter should always be limited to one page.  No exceptions.  In fact, anything more than four or five paragraphs will stretch the patience limit of most hiring managers, me included.

Here is a basic outline of a successful cover letter:

¾   Include all your contact information in the letterhead.

¾   Paragraph 1:  Explain why you are sending the resume.  If you are responding to an ad or specific job posting, mention it.  Otherwise, identify the type of title or position you are seeking.  If at all possible, use a “hook” such as a reference to a current employee at the company or an area of common interest between you and the letter recipient.  (“I heard you speak at the recent University of Illinois Alumni Association meeting in Chicago.”)

¾   Paragraphs 2, 3, 4:  Highlight areas of your background that might qualify you for the type of position you are seeking.  This section should be tailored to each recipient.  Areas of importance might include academic degrees, professional certifications, recent employers/titles, and a significant achievement or two.  Remember – Appetizer.  Save details and lengthy descriptions for your resume.

¾   Final Paragraph:  Thank the recipient for his/her time and consideration.
A cover letter is often your first communication with a potential employer or recruiter.  If you are eminently qualified for a position, a few choice morsels served up in a cover letter will whet the appetite of the recipient.  If you are unqualified, no amount of creative storytelling will get around that fact.  Be forthright, be factual, be brief. 

And don’t forget to check for grammar and spelling.

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