Cover letters that connect

Most job-seekers devote a substantial amount of time and energy into making their resumes (or CVs, for those of you who drive fancier cars) as perfect as possible. They read books about resumes, attend classes, even hire other people to write the resumes on their behalf. And what do they do when they submit those beautiful one-page encapsulations of their lives? They cover them up with crummy, poorly written cover letters.

There’s no question that a resume is important when you’re looking for a job, although many people overestimate the amount of time potential employers will take to study them. In my experience, a resume is essentially a screening tool that gives an employer a relatively quick way to divide applicants into “possible” and “ain’t no way” piles.

(I speak from experience, because I’ve been the unofficial resume screener at several jobs. The department director doesn’t have time to go through the 200 resumes that came in that week, so he or she parcels it to someone lower on the food chain. “Sort them and give me any that are worthwhile.” So, as a 22-year-old assistant to an assistant, I was determining whether VP-level candidates were worth an interview.)

Whether the decision-maker or a lowly associate is handling screening, the process is essentially the same. The screener is quickly narrowing the list to identify potential candidates. A five- or ten-second scan, and you either have an opportunity, or you’re thrown in the trash pile.

One way you can increase your chances of getting a longer look is to include a cover letter with your resume. That may not be news to you, but what may come as a surprise is that the vast majority of cover letters are nothing short of horrible. In my experience of reviewing resumes and cover letters at several different levels in several different jobs, I’d guess that somewhere around 90 percent of cover letters are terrible – either poorly written, unimaginative, unconvincing, or just plain weird.

Roughly 90 percent of that 90 percent follow one of two approaches: the “my name is” approach, or the “match the job listing” approach. The “my name approach” is my least favorite. “My name is Maria Jones, and I am interested in applying my skills and educational knowledge … so forth and so on.” (I always find it remarkable that the name in the first sentence matches the name at the very bottom of the letter. Given that fact, why do people feel the need to repeat it?)

The “match the job listing” approach user simply regurgitates the job posting. “I am a financial professional with 2+ years of public accounting experience, familiarity with cash management, a Bachelor’s degree, and knowledge of SAP, and I’m interested in the Accounting Associate position.” Yawn. Of course you’re interested in the position – that’s why you’re responding. (A dead giveaway is when there’s a typo in the ad’s description, and the respondent duplicates the typo in the cover letter.)

If you want to set your cover letter apart from all the bad ones, you need to understand the two roles such letters play. First, they have to serve as a stopper – they have to interrupt the wearying process of mechanically scanning through a stack of virtually identical resumes, and capture the scanner’s attention.

Second, and most important, they’re an opportunity to have an interview before the interview. The right cover letter is your introduction to the decision-maker, and if it suggests that you’re the perfect fit for the position and culture, you’ll interview from a position of strength. Even if it simply makes you memorable, the interviewer will look forward to talking to you, and might even open the interview with a comment from the letter.

Use the cover letter to tell a story about yourself. Give the scanner and the decision-maker some insight into what makes you tick and what separates you from the 200 others who are also sending resumes. Think about what brought you to this point in your life and career, and share the story.

Want an example? “I wouldn’t be writing you if I hadn’t been cut from the football team in 7th grade. When I was a little kid, I dreamed of playing for the NFL. But when I realized I wasn’t even good enough to warm the bench, I knew I’d have to find another interest. I joined the computer club at school, and three months later, created my first website. By the time I was a high school junior, I had my own business.”

Another? “My nursing career really began when I took a job in my small town’s pizza restaurant. If that sounds strange, think about the environment. Everyone’s in a rush, there are many complicated procedures happening at the same time, the phone never stops ringing – and mistakes are simply unacceptable to both customers and the owner. You either thrive in that environment, or you get out. I loved it.”

“Things you’ve done, lessons you’ve learned, people you’ve admired – all the things that … will make you a valuable member of your prospective employer’s team. ”

You have stories like that in your own life. Things you’ve done, lessons you’ve learned, people you’ve admired – all the things that made you the person you are today, and all the things that will make you a valuable member of your prospective employer’s team. But that employer won’t know about them unless you share them, and hiding behind a standardized “My name is” cover letter just won’t do it.

You can apply the same principles to emailed resumes. If the opening lines of your email are compelling and interesting, the poor guy or gal who has to sift through those hundreds of emails will stop and read it.

Yes, do make sure your resume is perfect. Spend time getting it right. But don’t miss out on what will really differentiate you by falling into the trap of sending a run-of-the-mill cover letter. After all, you bring something unique to the process – and only you know what that is.