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How to blow it… Part 2…Cover letters

Cover letters can be crucial to the success of your job search. They can bring out the specifics the company is seeking. They can give you the opportunity to highlight achievements that may not fit neatly into your resume. They can show that you have a pleasing command of the English language, with clear, cohesive sentences all joined together into attractive paragraphs. But an unfortunate cover letter can put paid to your interview chances even with a terrific resume. How to avoid the landmines……read on…..  

1) The correct length. Remember Goldilocks; it has to be just right. Too long is bad, and there may be instances where two pages would be necessary e.g. in the academic world, but a quick rule of thumb says, one page is best. That doesn’t mean crammed full to the gunwhales with the tiniest font you can find. Less is more. However, too little can be just as bad. If there’s nothing meaningful in it, why did you bother doing one. “Dear Sir, I enclose my resume. I look forward to hearing from you”.  I’d like a date with Ryan Gosling but frankly, you have as much chance of hearing back from the company as I have of dinner with Ryan.

2) You don’t have to write Pulitzer Prize-level English. If you were never in the top 2% of your year in essay-writing – heck, if you were mostly tested by multiple-choice and very rarely wrote essays – that’s ok. Keep it simple. Write as you would speak – well, without being too slangy. No vulgarity, no trying to use fancy words when you don’t normally use them; you’re possibly likely to use the wrong one and cause confusion/hilarity in the Human Resources office.  “My 15 years of service in the Acme Roofing Company are a tantamount to my loyalty.” Nope, sorry, they’re a testament. What would be wrong with, “My 15 years at the Acme Roofing Company are proof of my loyalty to my employer”.  Keep the sentences short if you’re not used to writing sentences with lots of subsidiary clauses. If you don’t know what a subsidiary clause is, definitely keep the sentences on the short side….

3) Your cover letter is very good. In fact, it was so good, the blogger who first wrote it put it up on the Internet to be used as a template, and that’s the one you used. Trouble is, tons of other people have used the exact same letter. It will be generic and not relate to the specific job for which you’ve applied, and the chances of the HR manager having seen it before, (might even have used it as a template for her own letter!) are pretty strong.

4) “I have a life outside work. I’m special”. You then regale the company with stories of how you climbed Kilimanjaro when you were 12, caught the biggest marlin (it’s a fish, apparently) recorded since 1963, run marathons with 12-pound weights strapped to your ankles. All these are admirable albeit bizarre achievements and the place to which they can be alluded is in the “Interests” paragraph at the end of your resume, NOT the cover letter. You are applying for a specific position, and you may be up against people eminently qualified for it. Tell them how you sold more Samsung Android Thingies than anyone at Samsung thought possible. The fact that you can hold your breath under water longer than anyone else in Wisconsin is something for the interview, not the cover letter.  

5) “It’s not just my outside interests that prove I’m special. My experience is second to none / my computer skills totally rock / I have impressive management skills (Captain Sub-Text however is saying, ‘can’t prove it, mind you, because I’m entry-level and haven’t actually managed anyone except when I babysit my little sister’).”  You have to be able to sell your skills and experience, and it’s not easy if you’re not by nature a show-off. It’s therefore easy to overdo the selling of yourself and come across as a right brat. In a cover letter, what you want to highlight are the relevant experience and the achievements, because they’re factual. You’re less likely then to sound, however inadvertently, arrogant.  

6) Jokes. Don’t use what you hope are witty comments. I, Margaret, am the only person allowed to write amusingly and that’s because it’s my blog, and my theory is you’ll read to the end if it’s vaguely funny. I wouldn’t do it in a cover letter, though. It’s too flippant, you have no idea what sort of sense of humor the recipient has, and you may risk offending them. OK, in the interests of full disclosure, there was one exception, not in a cover letter, but in a resume I once received, when an entry level chap described his hobbies as swimming and playing the guitar, “of course, not simultaneously” he wrote. Made me laugh and I brought him in for interview but one exception in a million resumes isn’t worth the risk.

7) PROOFREAD IT. If you’ve adapted a similar letter to another company, make sure you took out the name and address of the other company, the name of the person to whom the letter was addressed, the position for which you were applying. This may sound DUH to you, but you’d be amazed at how many times people send letters to companies with the wrong name, either on the address or hidden in the text.

8) I left the best to last. If you get an interview with a potential employer through an employment agency, you don’t need a cover letter. WE’RE your cover letter! We write wonderful things about you, tailored to what we know the client is looking for. We have relationships with clients that sometimes go back years, and we know what they’re looking for, so we can highlight the right bits. You just have to sit back and take our advice.