A cover letter coexists in the three sections of linear time: past, present and future. (Sorry, I forgot to take my medication this morning. I’ll be right back.)
OK. I’m better now. But the sad truth is that some consultants actually talk that way. They want to give the impression that they are scientists (This was even before Covid!) and not simply oracles who some believe should sit on the top of Delphi while others think they should be buried under it! What job seeker has time for this nonsense? None with whom I have ever worked.
Yes, a cover letter deals with the past, present and future (the aforementioned nonsense about linear time), but the purpose of the cover letter is simple: To get the recipient to look at the resume. That’s it. Period. End of discussion. But it can be more than that.
Sorry, but now we have to do some math:
For sake of argument, let’s say that when someone posts an ad for a job, they get 50 applications. (This can actually be a very conservative number.) That’s 50 cover letters to read. Figure an average of at least a minute per cover letter since some (the really bad ones) are well over a page in length, that’s an hour’s worth of reading. And that’s why, based on my unscientific surveys of recruiters and hiring managers, most simply throw them away and go straight for the resume. Which is a shame, because a cover letter can help differentiate a candidate from their competition and complement the resume, getting them the interview. That is why it is so important to write a cover letter that will actually be read. Mine are read!
There are basically two formats for a cover letter. As you will read, I prefer the traditional. The other is a “T-Bar” where the candidate lists the responsibilities/qualifications for the job on the left side of the chart, and their experiences/qualifications on the right. The logic is obvious: You are looking for X, I have done X. Clean. Neat. Simple.
The problem I have with it is that the employer already knows the responsibilities and qualifications for the job. It’s called “the job description” and they wrote it. So why waste time telling them what they already know? If you list them all, then you are sending the message that you cannot prioritize and don’t know what is their key demand or need.
Think of the cover letter as a “tease” or a “movie trailer.” You are trying to entice them to see the movie, i.e., your resume. If the cover letter tells your entire story, why should they read the resume? That is why I prefer a more traditional approach:
First, the cover letter must be short. You, the candidate, want the recipient to know that you can get to the point. You also want them to know that you understand their workload. So you want to make things easy for them. You want them to know that you care about getting the job (you don’t send a form letter) and, given that it is so rare today, that you can actually write a professional letter in English. (If I see one more “u” for “you” or “ur” for “you are” or “you’re,”…)
Second, there is no need in the cover letter to summarize your resume. If you need to summarize your resume because it is not clear, you need a new resume. If you need to summarize your resume so there will be content in your cover letter, you need to continue reading this article because you do no know what you are doing.
Allow me to sort of digress. If they don’t ask for one, should you provide a cover letter? I think the benefits outweigh any negatives. Yes, the recipient might think that you do unnecessary work. (If I wanted a cover letter, I would have asked for a cover letter!) But the fact that you know how to write an effective cover letter says enough positive things about you that it is worth the risk which, I believe is, at best, minimal. And this is why I believe employers should demand receipt of a cover letter. A short, to the point cover letter is a pretty good indication (not perfect, but pretty good) that the candidate won’t talk too much in meetings and will not digress from the topic.
So how do you write a cover letter?
In the first paragraph simply state “I wish to apply for the XYZ position you advertised on 123.” Now you have told the recipient that you appreciate the fact that they may be working on a number of searches at the same time and you want them to know which job you want (granted it should be in the subject line of the email along with any code) and, perhaps more importantly, that you get to the point. So many people start their cover letters by introducing themselves, telling the recipient about their career goals, and some even mention their hobbies, so, assuming the recipient will read the letter, they only know why the person has written them when they get to the bottom of the first page (if they are that lucky!). You appreciate the stress they are under. Again, you know how to get to the point. You know what is appropriate to be included in the cover letter and what can wait for the interview. That is why you keep it simple, just one informative line. So far, you are doing great! You have their attention. They are reading the letter and since they see, basically, that there is only one more real paragraph left, they continue reading.
In the second paragraph you tell them about the one accomplishment that you have had that speaks to the position for which you are applying and will convince them that they want to consider you before you reach out to their competition. You are showing them that you know what they want to hear and can refrain from wasting their time telling them the subjective things that you want them to know. No one wants to hear how great you think you are, they want to know what you can do for them. So: “Having successfully done such-and-such, saving my current employer X dollars, I am not only confident that I can fulfill the requirements of the position, but exceed them.” The unspoken questions are: You want me to save you hundreds of thousands/millions of dollars or your competitor? You want me to raise your client retention rate or your competitor’s? You want me to lower your employee turnover rate or your competitor’s? That’s the message of the second paragraph: I did it for someone else and I can do it for you! The unspoken message is: I am not a big risk to interview nor to hire.
The rest is simple:
Attached is a copy of my resume for your review. (Self explanatory.)
Thank you in advance for your consideration. (Always be polite.)
I look forward to hearing from you. (Self explanatory and not pushy. HR does not want you to call them. Imagine if all candidates called; they would not be able to do any work. You emailed them; they got your email. Now move on!)
Sincerely, (That’s how professionals end their letters.)
Your Name (And that’s why you don’t have to start your cover letter with, “My name is Joe Jones.” They know your name because it’s either on your email address, at the top of the letter, or your signature. When I get one of those I almost expect the next sentences to be: “I am five years old. When I grow up I want to be a fireman.”)
This letter can be read in about 10 seconds which is all the time you have. And that’s the primary evil secret of the cover letter: No one is going to spend more than 10 seconds reading a cover letter!