Are Cover Letters Old School?
Are Cover Letters Old School?
At a recent breakfast meeting with HR professionals, as we waited with coffee in hand for the program to start, I asked the recruiters and hiring managers sitting at my table about their perspectives on cover letters. Here’s what I learned:
  • If there’s something that needs to be explained—perhaps a gap in employment or why you’re pursuing a job that you’re underqualified for—they’ll often look to the cover letter for an explanation or additional information.
  • Several confessed to only looking at the resume—and if interested enough in the candidate’s experience—will then read the cover letter.
  • Not one of them told me they never read the cover letter. Not one.
What’s the conclusion you can draw from my completely unscientific research? Cover letters aren’t old school. It’s how most people write them that’s old school. Here’s a few pointers for a better way to look at your cover letter. It’s a competitive advantage.

They aren’t hiring someone to just join their super awesome company; they want someone who knows what THIS job is all about.

And if it takes you hours to pull a cover letter together, and even then, what you end up with is bland and uninspired, you’re doing it all wrong. Let me help. Here’s how to write a winning best cover letter:

1. Think about a story or a project example from your past that the employer needs to know about. Not the “I-get-along-with-everyone” qualifications but the “This-project-relates-to-your-needs” example. A specific story.

Example: You’re applying for a data coordinator position. You’ve been managing programs for the past few years (higher level of skill or experience than the data position) but part of what you do is manage large amounts of data to prepare federally mandated compliance reports. Because of some simple improvements you implemented—such as changing the reporting dates by a few weeks so the data was more complete and creating some basic dashboards for internal use—the process is more streamlined and accurate. This is your cover letter story.

2. Don’t start the letter telling the reader how you heard about their position (unless they’ve asked you to include this). Why? Every other letter will begin this way. Instead, acknowledge that while “Data Coordinator” isn’t your current job title, data is a huge part of your current role. Then describe how. If you’re following along at home—see #1 above.

Example: “When I first started at xyz, I was told that there were some reporting inconsistencies that I would need to check out. As I started to research the issue, I discovered that our finance and IT teams needed to be involved too. It was a collision of technology and processes! Our team of 10 worked for three weeks to get things resolved. We changed the reporting dates by a few weeks… (and other tangibles make your experience come alive on paper).”

3. What do you know about them? No one cares about what you’re looking for (sorry, but it’s true) or how your skills and experience are a perfect fit. (You wouldn’t be applying for the job otherwise, would you?) Talking about their general mission and how it connects with you, or how you love sports and would love to work in sportswear… well, they’ve heard that all before. Make it personal. Not TMI personal, but this is your opportunity to convey that you understand their problems and challenges. This is where you have to dig deep and be specific. You see, they aren’t hiring someone to just join their super awesome company; they want someone who knows what THIS job is all about. (Hint: Insider info makes this so much easier. A 20-minute conversation with someone who knows the company can make all the difference.)

Example: “I’ve learned how to ask the right questions to clarify requirements. I’m quick to identify trends and notice inconsistencies, and then probe to see if there are underlying issues. I tend to make things more efficient and streamline processes—not always in a formal way, but mainly because I have a low tolerance for long-term workarounds. I know that with health care changes over the past few years, it’s been tough for ABC to keep up. I’ll help get the right people involved in data processes – and if there’s an issue, I’ll jump head-on into solving it…” (Here’s the rub: Don’t copy this. Make it relevant to the organization/position. Use your own voice.)

4. Have a simple close. Sharing that you’ll follow up is corny. Or that you look forward to interviewing is presumptuous.

Example: I look forward to learning more about the Data Coordinator role.

There you have it. A distinctive cover letter that won’t sound like the other 199 they’ll be reading.

Authentic, personable, and more casual than you might be used to. Experiment and see if it helps you stand out. I have a hunch it just might.