January 21, 2011
Today’s cover letter: Even paperless, a good one can give an advantage
Special to NWjobs
The rules used to be simple: To apply for a job, you’d craft a cover letter, print it on nice paper, and drop your letter and résumé in the mail.
Now, however, it’s not that straightforward.
Many job postings provide only a nameless e-mail address. There are more applicants than hiring managers know how to handle. Sometimes employers ask for a cover letter, sometimes not. And with some application systems, a human doesn’t get involved until after a computer program has sorted through the submissions for keywords.
What has happened to the traditional cover letter amid all these changes? Has it become obsolete?
The not-so-short answer is: it depends. While the high number of job seekers has made some overwhelmed hiring managers want to reduce their paperwork as much as possible, others have found that a cover letter helps identify standout candidates.
“The key is that it’s situational,” says Dan Hallak, a career consultant who teaches a class on writing cover letters at Bellevue College. “If [employers] don’t ask for it, don’t give them one. If they do ask for it, assume that they think it’s important.”
In that case, Hallak says, “make it an interesting read. Do a little bit of research on the company you’re applying to and make it specific to them.”
Write a winning letter
Career consultants Paul Anderson and Dan Hallak offer these tips for cover letters:
• Find out who the cover letter is going to and address it by name rather than “To whom it may concern.”
• Focus on what you want to communicate. Don’t ramble.
• Don’t just say how much experience you have. Explain how your experience makes you the person to solve the employer’s problems.
• Proofread for spelling errors and typos. Have someone else read it.
• Make sure your letter adds value to your application.
Karen du Four des Champs, formerly an HR business partner at a local distribution company, put a great deal of weight on cover letters when she was looking to fill a position last July. Since her job posting requested a cover letter, she says, “if [applicants] didn’t submit a cover letter, I didn’t even look [at their résumés]. It’s a test to see if you can follow directions.”
Du Four des Champs also looked for people who spelled her name right. “That showed me they at least knew how to copy and paste,” she says.
With most applications arriving by e-mail now, Paul Anderson of ProLango Consulting says the fewer attachments, the better. A cover letter should be in the body of the e-mail so that when recipients read the e-mail, “they’re looking at why they should open the résumé,” he says.
A cover letter that’s e-mailed should be the same length as a traditional cover letter -- limited to a single page, Anderson says. The content should be the same, too -- formal and informative. Just because it’s e-mail doesn’t mean it’s OK to use lax grammar and emoticons. Anderson also advises his clients to avoid templates, which offer generic examples.
To prepare cover-letter-like material for an online form, Hallak advises applicants to write a one- to three-page overview describing their value. They can then parcel out and tweak that information to provide answers to fill-in questions.
Du Four des Champs is now job hunting and recently applied for a job using an online form. She researched the company and the position, and had a good idea of what the employer was looking for.
Although the company didn’t request a cover letter, there was a section for “Notes” on the form. She used it to address some of the main points she would have discussed in a cover letter -- and got a call from the recruiter the next day.
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