How to improve your cover letter

June 18, 2009

We know the job market is tough out there so we're trying to give you the best tips we can find. Earlier, we posted about how to improve your resume so it stands out among the rest. That same author David Silverman over at Harvard Business is coming back for round two and this time it's cover letters. His advice? Don't bother. But if a cover letter is essential, he offers some pointers: The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received In my last post I talked about how to make your rĩsumĩ more likely to catch the attention of a hiring manager. As a follow up, I'd like to discuss cover letters. Here's my basic philosophy on them: don't bother. That's because the cover letters I see usually fall into one of three categories: The recap: The rĩsumĩ in prose form. It's redundant, harder to read than the rĩsumĩ, and provides no additional insight. The form letter: This says, essentially, "Dear Sir or Madam: I saw your ad in the paper and thought you might like me." And it's clearly a form letter where maybe they got my name and company right. If they're lucky, I will still take the time to read their rĩsumĩ after being insulted with a form letter. The "I'm crazy": This one's rare, and it expands on the rĩsumĩ of experience with some personal insights. Examples range from the merely batty ("I find batik as an art form has taught me to become both a better person and project manager.") to the truly terrifying ("I cast a pentagram hex and the central line pointed towards your job listing. I know you will find this as comforting as I do.") There are really only a few times to use a cover letter:
  1. When you know the name of the person hiring
  2. When you know something about the job requirement
  3. When you've been personally referred (which might include 1 and 2)
Under those conditions, you can help your cause by doing some of the rĩsumĩ analysis for your potential new boss. To illustrate, here's the best cover letter I ever received:
Dear David:I am writing in response to the opening for xxxx, which I believe may report to you. I can offer you seven years of experience managing communications for top-tier xxxx firms, excellent project-management skills, and a great eye for detail, all of which should make me an ideal candidate for this opening. I have attached my rĩsumĩ for your review and would welcome the chance to speak with you sometime. Best regards, Xxxx Xxxx
Here's what I like about this cover letter: It's short. It sums up the rƒ©sumƒ© as it relates to the job. It asks for the job. The writer of this letter took the time to think through what would be relevant to me. Instead of scattering lots of facts in hopes that one was relevant, the candidate offered up an opinion as to which experiences I should focus on. And that means the writer isn't just showing me skills related to the job, he's showing me he'll be the kind of employee who offers up solutions --  instead of just laying problems on my desk. What do you think? Have you ever secured a job thanks to a cover letter? What's your view on the value --  or lack thereof --  of cover letters?