It seems like every job opening out there requires you to send a cover letter with your resume, doesn’t it? This is not because cover letters are terribly insightful; they aren’t. In fact, it’s very rare that anyone ever reads them very carefully, and most often, they’re simply detached from the resume and tossed into the trash without a second glance. Despite this, most HR departments continue to require them just because they always have, and why change now, right? (By the way, for you newbies, “HR” is short for “human resources.” A good HR department ensures sure you get paid on time, your benefits are good, and you have a confidential place within the company to vent frustration about your coworkers. A lousy HR department loses your paperwork and gossips your confidential information to anyone who’s listening at the T.G.I. Friday’s bar after two margaritas at happy hour.)
But cover letters are still a fact of life, so we have to address them. After all, you don’t want to be caught with your pants down when that one boss out there who actually cares about these things is the person you’re trying to impress. Here are some guidelines for cover letters that people actually read:
1) Make it snappy. Five paragraphs? Not necessary – it’s a cover letter, not a cover essay. This is just a segue to your resume, so you don’t want to rehash the entire thing in paragraph form. Instead, be sharp, snappy, brief and to-the-point.
2) Address the needs of the employer. Most cover letters talk about me, me, me. “I’m a student at” so-and-so, and “I’m experienced in” this and “I’d like to join the team,” etc. All of that may be true, but those statements don’t speak directly to my needs as an employer. All employers want you to help them create more of two things: money and time. Don’t say this: “I am a Widget-making major at Arizona State University, where I have refined my widget-making skills over the last five years to the level of Class 5 Widget Master.” Instead, say: “I can immediately take over the widget-making responsibilities at Widgets, Inc., and I’ll introduce new widget-making methods that can lead to significant cost savings for the company.” That’s a bold statement, but I’ll take a bold statement any day. If I want details on how you plan to do this, I’ll ask you in the interview. But you know what that means? It means you got an interview. The other 95% of applicants won’t.
3) I think? I can. There’s a very subtle element of language that makes a huge difference in not only the way you’re perceived by others, but in what you yourself can achieve. Here it is: on one hand, there are statements like “I think I can,” “I’ll try to,” “I’ll do my best,” “I’ll attempt to,” etc. On the other hand are two, and only two, far superior phrases: “I can” and “I will.” The phrases on the first hand are well-intentioned, but unfortunately, they also communicate doubt. And here’s something that a lot of your future employers (myself included) believe: The people who doubt themselves in the beginning will often fail to deliver in the end. That may sound harsh, but it’s true – the more “wiggle room” you allow yourself from the beginning by hedging your statements with things like “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best,” the more likely you are to use that room to wiggle out of your commitment in the end when things get difficult.
I am not a Star Wars fan, but one of the truest lines ever spoken came from the mouth of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do or do not. There is no ‘try’.” And that’s exactly right: you’ll either do something or you won’t, and that’s that. And 99% of whether you do it or not is your own attitude about the task before you start. It’s outside the scope of this book to go into detail about how to get the right attitude, but this book is about resumes, so for our purposes, you only need to look like you have the right attitude on paper. And the way to do that is to catch yourself saying “I think I can” and “I’ll try to” and change them to “I can” and “I will.”
4) Start strong with something interesting :
- Add something compelling, interesting about yourself. Begin with something creative, off-the-wall. The dead cover letter begins, “Hello Mr. Smith, I am a senior at ASU and blah blah blha.”
If the name of the addressee has been made available to you, then address that person by name in your letter. Yes, that means you’ll have to do a little more work – you won’t just get to print 100 copies of the same letter with a “To Whom It May Concern” heading. But you shouldn’t be sending those if you have an alternative. “To Whom It May Concern” is what people write when they’re too lazy to figure out who the letter should be addressed to.
Taking an extra 60 seconds to enter the addressee’s full name informs the employer that you’re not just dumping resumes all over the world and hoping something will stick. People who do so are not prime candidates for employment. They are the crack whores of the job market. “What you want? What you need? You got money? You got a paycheck? If you got money, I’ll do it, honey!”
I speak from experience, because I’ve been there myself. Not crack whoring (although that wasn’t far off on the horizon at my worst point), but resume cropdusting – blanketing the world with my resume when I was out of work and badly needed a gig. Notice that I’ve never said it’s bad to do the resume cropdusting – it’s only bad to appear that you’re resume cropdusting. Look, sometimes you just need work, and you’ll do whatever pays the bills. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I delivered Auto Traders and sold plasma for six months at my lowest point.
But now, think of the employer. If he knows that you’re dropping your resume on any desk that isn’t occupied by a schoolchild, what does that mean to him? Well, like I said above – it means you’re not interested in HIS work, but rather any work that will restock your cupboards with Ramen and Diet Rite. And it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that employers would much rather hire someone who’s actually interested in their business than someone who’s just passing by for a paycheck until something better comes along.
But if you have to cropdust, you have to cropdust. Necessity comes first. So if you’re in a cash crunch and are cropdusting the world with your resumes, the key is to personalize as many of those resumes to the greatest degree possible, to fool those employers into thinking that you really do want the job as a lawnmower-manual illustrator. Or an injection-molding line supervisor. Or a dental-office secretary. Or whatever.
The way to do that is simple; personalize every resume and letter you send as much as you can. Personalize who you’re sending the letter to. Customize the details of your experience and (if possible) education to focus on skills that lend themselves to the job at hand.
Your basic resume is going to be the same, but you’ll need to customize it for nearly every job you apply for. Here’s what I used to do: save your resume to your computer as “master resume” or something like that. Then, every time you’re about to apply for a job, open “master resume” and immediately go to “Save As…” and save a new copy of it that’s customized for the job you’re applying for. In my case, I’d do “Save as…” and name my new file “Resume – Law.com.” The next one would be “Resume – Acme Hotel Group,” etc.
It’s important to do this for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that if you’re blanketing 100 different employers with 100 different resumes, you’ll need to have a copy of each on hand to refer to so that you can remember what you told each employer! The information will be arranged and perhaps stated differently on each, so if you get a callback for an interview, you’ll want to be able to quickly look at your own copy of the resume you sent them so you can get in the proper frame of mind for your interview.
The second reason is to save yourself work later on. We’ll use my example again. During my longest period of unemployment, I applied for a job at a website called Law.com. About a month later, I applied for a job with the Arizona Bar Association. As you might guess, the skills required at both of these jobs are very closely related, since they’re both 100% devoted to the legal profession. So when I went to make my Arizona Bar Association resume, I didn’t start from scratch with my “master resume.” Instead, I opened up the Arizona Bar Association resume, changed almost nothing, and saved it as “Resume – Arizona Bar Association.”