Author – John Rindy, MPH
“As you will see in my resume.”
Oh, how many cover letters I have read that contain that fateful phrase. This begs the question: If they are going to read it on the next page, why would we tell them about it on this page? Probably the two worst mistakes I see on cover letters these days are preempting the resume, and overuse of the word “I”. “I was promoted.” “I earned salesperson of the year.” “I earned my Bachelor’s Degree.” “I volunteered with the Red Cross.” “I. I. I. I. I!” If I were the boss I would be inclined to think, “Go work for someone else! This is a we effort, pal!”
So, what is the proper mindset when writing a cover letter? There is a particular phrase I use when I am career coaching one-on-one, or teaching cover letters to a group. This is pretty easy to remember: “If you are going to say great things about yourself in the resume, then the cover letter is an opportunity to say more, and different great things about yourself.” Employment documents should be clear, concise, recent, relevant and consistent. But let’s just consider concise for a moment. With the exception of a few majors, such as education, most first professional resumes should be no longer than one page. This is not because of some profound law of nature but for a simple reason. An H.R. person often has to scan hundreds of resumes to decide who to invite for an interview. If yours is long, or hard to read, you’re out! So, if you need to be concise, you might need to cut a few things out of the resume and this is where the cover letter comes in.
A cover letter and resume are not supposed to be about everything you have done, they are supposed to be about the best, most recent and most relevant things you have done. Here is a trick that I like to use. Follow these steps:
1. Bring up the job description (just the essential functions and desired skills part) on your computer
2. Copy and paste the description onto a blank Microsoft Word document
3. Then sentence by sentence separate each desired skill/characteristic (so if the description is in paragraph form, separate the sentences so that each sentence is on a separate line). Then put an open line between each essential function, skill or desired characteristic.
4. Then, below each of these type a description of where you have gained this experience, characteristic or skill. For example, let’s say the first line says “Must have demonstrated work experience leading a team.” Type below this line your best example of where you gained this experience.
5. Once you have decided whether you gained the experience from work, college courses (and filled in the name of the course too), volunteering or other experiences, go through each line and place an “R” next to the skill/characteristic or essential function that you will cover on the resume and a “C” next to the ones you will cover in the cover letter.
This exercise will help you decide how to lay out your experiences. It will also assure that you do not over emphasize a particular skill and under-emphasize another. Now, if the employer clearly notes certain skills, or if you know for certain that a particular skill set will be required for the job, then it is okay to cover these in both the resume and the cover letter but it is important that you demonstrate these through different experiences in each. So if you talk about your teamwork skills in the resume, in terms of your athletic pursuits, you had better have a different example of your teamwork prowess on the resume.
Last, but certainly not least, we move to the cover letter format. There is the traditional layout and the contemporary layout. I am a contemporary fan, so I will only mention this form. Simply put, the contemporary form starts by using the same exact heading you have on your resume. I like this format because it gives your employment documents a consistent, precise and almost letterhead look. Also, use the “no spacing” feature in MS Word, not that lousy “normal” spacing setting which is anything but normal. What in God’s name was Microsoft thinking calling that awful line spacing “normal” anyway?
Here is what the different sections of your cover letter should be doing for you:
Paragraph 1 (2-4 lines): Thank them for accepting your resume as application for the job. Tell them where you learned about the job (dropping a name if appropriate). One last thing I like to see in the first paragraph is a sentence saying “After reviewing the job description, I find that I would be an excellent candidate because. . .” So give them one great reason that compels them to keep reading. Notice also that I said “I find” and not “I feel”. It doesn’t matter what you feel, it matters what they feel (actually it matters what they think – we need to stop this mushy gushy “I feel” garbage).
Paragraph 2 (5-7 lines): This is where you refer back to the sheet where you broke apart the job description. Look at those characteristics or skills that you wanted to cover in your cover letter. Often you will not have enough lines to cover them one at a time, so you may need to creatively weave two or three skills into a single sentence at a time. Believe me, it can be done; I do it for folks everyday of my life. So, this paragraph is where you tell your reader why you are a great match for the job.
Paragraph 3 (3-6 lines): In this section you tell the company why you will be a great match for their team. Read about the company’s services or products in detail. Read their mission, vision and values statement. Then write why you would fit in with this culture. Whenever possible refer to actual phrases from their mission or values statements. This shows that you took the time to determine if you are compatible with the organization.
Final paragraph (2-4 lines): “I would appreciate the opportunity to visit your offices and interview for this position.” So few people actually ask for the interview in the cover letter, yet it is exactly what you desire. Ask for the interview! Then remind them the best way to get in touch with you. If you want to seem more assertive, write something like “I will remain in touch in the coming days to ascertain the status of my application.”
Finally, do not forget a great salutation like “Respectfully” or “Kind Regards”, or “Sincerely.” Never say “Thank You” as a sign off to your letters. This is not a “Thank you!” letter, it is a cover letter and, by the way, “Thank You” is never an appropriate salutation. If you are thanking someone for something, it should be in the first two sentences of your letter. It does not need to be repeated because it begins to seem disingenuous the more you use the phrase.
So, never squander the opportunity to compose an effective cover letter and remember my rule: Never waste a full page preempting your resume when you could be saying even more and even better things about yourself.
It’s your future. Take charge!