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News & Resources publication

​Don't Make Me Write a Cover Letter (but if I must...)

​​By Doris Kiser, Search Coordinator, raffa search, transition & planning practice

as a complement to this fantastic article about being a resume snob, I would like offer tips from a self-proclaimed cover letter curmudgeon. I am not an active recruiter, but I do manage all the cover letters and resumes that come through our office, and have seen both terrifying and amazing cover letters.

I have read thousands of cover letters. Short is good, but this does not count:

"Hi,
You requested a cover letter. Please accept my application, and see the attached resume.

Thanks,
Sir Applicant.”

This is NOT a cover letter. We call them transmittal letters. Applicants who submit such letters are usually summarily screened out of the process.

What you need is a cover letter that conveys your experience and how well your experience matches the job's requirements. While this seems self-evident, I receive very few cover letters that do this.

10 Cover Letter Ground Rules

  1. ADDRESS - When addressing your cover letter, it is best to address it to the person who will actually be reading it. This is not, generally, the CEO of the company you are applying to. When we post positions, we always include the recruiter’s name at the end of the position profile, enabling applicants to tailor their communication directly to the person who will be reviewing their resume. If you have a contact listed in the profile of the job you are applying to, use that name. It will enhance your chances of having your cover letter read.
  2. CONTACT INFO – Even though you have listed your contact information on your resume, it is important to list it on your cover letter, too. Recruiters look at both documents, and if you want to increase the chance that they will look at your application AND contact you, include your contact information on your cover letter.
  3. CONTENTS – Look at the position profile or job description and find the section that describes the skills or experience the position requires. Do you have those skills? If not, you know in your heart of hearts that you will not get that job, so don’t be disappointed when you don’t get offered an interview. If you have many or all of the requested skills, make a list of the skills the position requires, then jot down your experiences that match those skills side by side. This will become the bulk of your cover letter: writing a paragraph or two about what they are seeking and how you are the applicant who can provide it.  For example, if the profile says, “Requires a deep commitment to non-profits and experience with mission-driven community development,” you could write, “This position requires a commitment to nonprofits. I have served as four years as the Development Director for a nonprofit serving the homeless community in Chicago.” Address each point with your direct experience.
  4. LACKING SOMETHING? – Is there something the job requires that you lack? Seek to find a positive way to address your shortcoming (relative to the position). If the job requires 10+ years of experience, and you only have 5, be upfront and say, “I have 5 years of direct experience with board members, but I interact with people at the C-level daily, and am quite comfortable working at that level.” The experience section of a position profile is an employer’s “Rockstar” list, so if your work is a match with most of the requirements, you have a higher possibility than you might think of moving from applicant to candidate.
  5. IMPACT – A good opening paragraph would include specific impact that you have had in your current and past positions. State the impact clearly: “Created a fundraising program that brought in over $30M in revenue after two years,” or “Adjusted the mission of the organization to focus more tightly on senior citizens who have limited access to health care, and found ways to provide that care.”
  6. TAILOR : LIKE CLOTHING – Just as you tailor a suit to fit your body, you must tailor your cover letter to a position if you really want the job. Recruiters may look at hundreds of cover letters and resumes for one position. If your cover letter says, “Dear Sirs, I am applying for a position with your company because I am an excellent employee,” you have already lost the recruiter’s interest. Why not take the time to personalize, such as, “Hello [Recruiter’s Name], I am applying for the CEO position with XYZ Corporation and I am a high-quality candidate because...”
  7. DON’T “TMI" (too much information) – While you want to cover all the salient points, you do need to keep your letter concise. One page is all you need to effectively communicate both your desire for the position and your qualifications. If you have more than one page worth of things to say, write them down for the interview!
  8. KEEP IT SIMPLE – Just like on your resume, do not use text boxes or fancy fonts. You want the recruiter to READ the letter. They won’t if it is written in Lucinda Calligraphy font in 14 point type colored purple. No recruiter has that much time. As much as it may anger you to know that your application only gets about 30 seconds of time in front of a recruiter before he makes a decision about you, harness that knowledge and make it work FOR you – by skipping fancy fonts and lines and boxes. You have a better chance with plain, simple text.
  9. GRAMMAR – Check it, double check it, and then let your Grammar-Police friend check it one last time. Nothing says “I don’t really want this job” faster than a misspelled word or a grammatical error. Errors are blatant to those who read applications for a living, so if you are not sure something is absolutely perfect, pay to have it checked. Getting the job will be worth it.
  10. BE PROFESSIONAL, AND HUMAN – Recruiters are people, too. It is wise to convey your professionalism, but also to show your human side. You may let your personality shine in your cover letter in a way that is not possible in your resume. While I don’t have specific tips, simply writing in a conversational style that is all your own, and not copied from a book or someone else’s cover letter allows YOU to shine through. Let someone else read your cover letter and judge whether it conveys your style.

Hopefully, these tips will help you craft a cover letter that will help you land the job you are seeking. If you have any questions, please email dkiser@raffa.com.