Opinions are Like Cover Letters – Everybody Has One, and Most of Them are Wrong

28 Jun

Ah, the magical cover letter. We slave over our sentence structure, we toil over getting just the right words. We stress over balancing the “what’s in it for me” with the “what’s in it for you”. We ask ourselves:

“What’s another word for excited?”

“Does it sound too forward to say that I’m positive I can make a contribution, or should I stick with confident?”

“If I say ‘seasoned’ does it make me sound old? Or like food?”

The age-old questions we ask ourselves are, for the most part, moot. I’ll tell you why.

First, let me qualify this opinion piece by stating that it’s exactly that: an opinion. I’m sure that there are plenty of experts out there who will disagree with me, and I hope they do (and I hope they comment – I love comments!) But for the moment I have the floor; so I shall pontificate.

In my opinion…

There are two Universal Truths about cover letters (and by universal I mean, well, more often than not. And I capitalize the words to give myself and my opinions an inflated sense of importance – don’t judge.) These two Universal Truths are:

  1. Cover letters don’t matter.
  2. A cover letter will never get you a job, but it can certainly lose you one.

I certainly don’t mean to say that if an employer asks you for a cover letter that you should refuse. (And if you needed me to tell you that, your problems are bigger than your cover letter.) I’m just saying that 9 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t read them, and 10 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t pass them along to hiring managers.

I’ve said before that if you have something specific you want to say, you should say it in your cover letter. If you’re relocating, especially at your own expense and very soon, this should be mentioned. If, um, well, I can’t really think of another example of something that would make a cover letter necessary, but I’m sure there must be one.

Amendment to Universal Truth #1: if you’re moving into the area where the job is, please disregard this truth.

Now, on to Universal Truth #2. I have NEVER read a resume of someone who was unqualified for the job and thought “well, if they have a great cover letter I’ll reconsider.” Never happened; never will.  However, I have on several occasions read a resume of a qualified candidate, then moved on to the cover letter out of curiosity, and have promptly removed that candidate from consideration. Maybe there was one too many typos. Maybe s/he had the name of the wrong company or the letter was addressed to someone I had never heard of. Maybe s/he couldn’t string two sentences together coherently or couldn’t conjugate verbs. Maybe s/he used a background on the document that contained butterflies, skulls, unicorns, stars, or any combination of these. The bottom line is that there are so many things that can go wrong with a cover letter that at times it hardly seems worth it. On the flip side, unless you’re an exceptionally gifted writer, your letter has very little chance of coming off as anything but generic. Wit is a dangerous thing in a cover letter – you never know who’s reading it or how they’ll take your jokes.  So if the best you can hope for is forgettable, is it really worth a ton or stress and time to make it “perfect?”

I know that, despite my efforts to remove cover letters from the business vocabulary, you’ll likely have to write several during a job search. With this in mind, here are my best tips for how to make your letter as good as it can possibly be.

  1. Address it to the correct company. Please.
  2. Keep it brief. No more than a couple of well thought out paragraphs.
  3. Outline two things: why you want the job and why you’re right for the job.
  4. Don’t repeat your resume. They’ve already read that.
  5. Try to keep it conversational – this is your chance to show your personality.
  6. Don’t show too much personality. Failed attempts at humor are deadly in cover letters.
  7. If your personality sucks, ignore #6 and stick to a very business-like tone.
  8. Read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it doesn’t look good in writing.
  9. Proofread it. Check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. Spellcheck is your worst enemy. Just because there are no red squiggly lines doesn’t mean it’s right.
  10. Proofread it. Again. You missed something the first time. Trust me.

If you’ve followed these steps, you probably are now sitting in front of a document that is inoffensive, vanilla, and could have come from 1000 different candidates. If that’s what you have, congratulations! You have a perfect cover letter.

Now go send that puppy out – recruiters everywhere are waiting to not read it.

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29 Responses to “Opinions are Like Cover Letters – Everybody Has One, and Most of Them are Wrong”

  1. lady d June 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    Any cover letter advice for someone who has an impressive resume in their field but is looking to transition into a new sector? It seems like the cover letter is the place to explain that you’re looking to transition to a new field, and these are the skills you’ve acquired in your previous jobs which are transferable, etc.

    • HR Dave June 28, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

      Congratulations! You found the other reason that someone should definitely have a cover letter! If you’re making a transition in your function or your industry, you want to outline that briefly in your cover letter. Make sure that you don’t focus on why you’re NOT qualified, but instead focus on any transferable skills that you have which will allow you to be successful in your transition from your old career to your new one.

      Transitioning to a new function or industry is definitely not easy, and you face an uphill battle to get there (have I mentioned that recruiters tend to be a pretty unimaginative group?), so you’ll want to have your ducks in a row and be able to paint a very clear picture of why you’ll be successful as an unproven entity.

      Good luck! Let me know if you have further questions on this.

      D

      • lady d June 28, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

        As someone who’s facing that uphill battle (fleeing book publishing after 12 years to hopefully more verdant editorial pastures elsewhere – maybe corporate communications?), that’s not exactly comforting but good to know. Thanks! :)

        • lady d June 28, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

          One more thing with regards to transitioning careers – any thoughts on taking jobs in a new field with a lesser title? When transitioning to a new function or industry, should you expect to take a major hit in terms of title? Can it be damaging to do so? Or is it necessary in most cases?

          • HR Dave June 28, 2011 at 5:50 pm #

            When transitioning careers, it’s almost a given that you’re going to take a hit in title, and probably in salary as well. The fact is that you can’t expect to command the rank and income doing something you’ve never tried before as you did when you were a proven commodity in your field. Ideally you’re transitioning into a field with more potential for growth, more stability, more work-life balance, whatever it is you’re going for – which makes it worthwhile.

            And as far as damaging goes, it’s only damaging if you let your ego get in the way. Know at the outset what you want, what you’re willing to accept, and what you would love to have. Then if you get any of these things in your job search, you can consider yourself victorious.

            • lady d June 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

              Very well put. Thanks!

  2. Tonya June 29, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    “Now go send that puppy out – recruiters everywhere are waiting to not read it.” Even as a transitioning job seeker that was funny. I laughed through my tears.

    • HR Dave June 29, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

      Thanks Tonya – I know it can be an intense and frustrating experience to be in transition. Kudos to you for being able to keep your sense of humor. It’s a skill that’s sure to serve you well.

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