A Better Cover Letter

I have changed my mind on how to write an effective cover letter. But only in form, not substance.

What has remained the same is that a cover letter has to address only the concerns of the employer – you have to tell them what they want to hear, not what you want to tell them. It has to be so short that it can be read in 10 seconds. And, when responding to an ad, answer any questions asked – usually about salary.

So what has changed?

In the past I have recommended a first sentence that goes like this:

I wish to apply for the controller position which I saw advertised in today’s Post.

That sentence shows that you get straight to the point, tell them for which position you are applying, where you heard about it, and when. No self-praise or resume summary which is the mistake most people make.

Then I suggested a second sentence that goes like this:

Having saved my employers an average of $1 million a year, every year, by uncovering waste and improving procurement activities, I am not only confident that I can fulfill the requirements of the job but exceed them.

In other words, this is why you should hire me. No self-praise; just facts. The message: I have done it for others and I can do it for you. You won’t be taking a risk if you hire me.

I now believe that this is a mistake. The concept is perfect, but the order is wrong. In giving the advice which, by the way, has worked for many job applicants, I committed a rookie journalistic mistake: I buried the lead. So my new first paragraph would go like this:

Having saved my employers an average of $1 million a year, every year, by uncovering waste and improving procurement activities, I am not only confident that I can fulfill the requirements of the controller position which I saw advertised in today’s Post, but exceed them.

Now you are shooting with both barrels right up front. The purpose of the cover letter is to get the recipient to look at your resume. With this cover letter, they will look at your resume.

Then, if and only if they ask, tell them what your salary requirements are. If you don’t it means one of two things: Either you are playing games (Whoever says a number first loses.) or you are sloppy (There was only one question in a one inch ad and you forgot to answer it! What’s going to happen when you have a project which requires you to answer 20 questions? If you can’t handle one, how are you going to handle 20?). That said, you can answer in one of three ways: I was last earning X, not including benefits. I am currently earning X, not including benefits. My salary requirements are X, not including benefits. (The last is if you have been unemployed for a long time, or if your are concerned that you were earning too much in your last job, and is based on your actual budget.) By adding “not including benefits” you are making it clear that you are open to negotiations.

Finally end this way:

Attached please find a copy of my resume for your review.

Thank you in advance for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

And that’s it. Five paragraphs (including “Sincerely”). Ten seconds to read. And it differentiates you from your competition.

Most job applicants use the cover letter to sing their own praises. “A consummate professional with….” “Are you looking for someone who never disappoints?” No employer cares what you think about yourself. Employers only care about what you can do for them. So by focusing on what you have actually accomplished, you differentiate yourself.

Sadly, you are also going to differentiate yourself in another way. The fact is, including recent college graduates, very few people can write a decent letter. You will show that you can write and employers will be pleasantly surprised, maybe even relieved!

So keep it short. Keep it focused on the employer’s needs. And have a resume that follows the same logic. Even if it takes two or three pages, make certain your resume answers employers’ questions before they ask them! It’s not hard to do.

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Bruce Hurwitz is an executive recruiter and career counselor. He has helped scores (thousands if you include attendees at his presentations) of people, including veterans, not only change jobs but, on occasion, change careers. Having successfully transitioned from academia to non-profits to the recruiting industry, he has been there and done that!

Bruce is a recognized authority on job search and career issues, having been quoted in over 700 articles, appearing in some 500 publications, across the United States and in more than 30 foreign countries. His posts on LinkedIn have been read over 300,000 times and have garnered national and international media attention, including television appearances on Fox Business Network and Headline News (CNN).

In addition to serving on the Board of Directors of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, he chairs their Entrepreneurs Network, hosts their weekly podcast – The Voice of Manhattan Business – and serves as an Ambassador.

An advocate for the protection of job seekers, visit the homepage of his website, www.hsstaffing.com, to read about questionable offerings of so-called job search assistance companies and to learn about his upcoming speaking engagements.

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