Cover Letters to Recruiters
In the world of recruiters and executive search firms, resumes rule. But this doesn't mean you should ignore or forgo sending cover letters.
"If a candidate's resume is a good fit to what I'm looking for, then I'm going to take a look at the cover letter," says Dan Anderson, a partner in St. Paul-based executive search and recruitment services firm C. Anderson & Associates. At Anderson's firm, both the resume and cover letter are filed for future reference.
Your Situation Dictates Your Cover Letter Approach
So what do recruiters look for in a cover letter? It depends on which of these three scenarios you're dealing with:
- Ad-Response Cover Letters: If a search firm is handling a job opening, gear your cover letter to the ad's desired qualifications.
"Let's say I'm reviewing responses to a Monster posting," says Anderson. "If the candidate has taken the time to tailor the cover letter and bring out how their background meets the qualifications I want, my impression is going to be that they're a sharp individual.
"One of the best cover letters I ever saw was written by a gentleman who took each point from the ad requirements section and answered every single one with a precise summary of how he fit my client's needs," he adds. "When I read it, I thought, ‘Finally! Somebody answered the question.'"
- Referral Cover Letters: "I always read a cover letter if it begins with something like ‘You worked with my friend so-and-so on a recent search, and he told me about your service,'" says Anderson. "If you've been referred to me by a source, this should be mentioned in the first line of your cover letter."
- Cold Cover Letters: These accompany unsolicited resumes. Recruiters receive dozens of these on any given day, so be brief. "Think ‘meat and potatoes' in terms of communicating only your top qualifications, and eliminate any additional fluff," says Diane Oates, founder and director of Corporate Diversity Search, a Webster, New York, firm that places women and minorities in Fortune 500 companies. Anderson adds that for this kind of cover letter, it's also a good idea to tell the recruiter your salary requirements, your target position and industry, and your availability for relocation or travel.
Eight Rules for Cover Letters
Regardless of what kind of letter you're writing, use this advice from recruiters to guide your efforts and maximize your chances for success:
- Remember Your Purpose: "Candidates need to ask themselves why they're writing to the recruiter in the first place," Anderson says. "Are you answering an ad? Introducing yourself? Or just spamming some generic letter out, which is never going to be very effective."
- Be Brief: "Brevity is extremely important on any cover letter to a recruiter," says Anderson, who prefers cover letters be a half-page or shorter.
- Narrow Your Focus: When replying to an advertised opening, your cover letter will focus on a specific opportunity. But when writing a referral or cold cover letter, many candidates are too broad in their job targets. "Don't try to make yourself all things to all people in your cover letter," Anderson advises. "As a recruiter, I'm looking for specialists with certain sets of expertise, not generalists."
- Set Realistic Goals: Don't use the cover letter to try to secure a position several steps above your current level. "Recruiters can only place people into positions that are the next logical step for them," Anderson explains.
- Emphasize Your Main Selling Points: "I like to see cover letters that profile a candidate's top qualifications," says Oates. "Whether that's a high GPA, a unique skill set or a strong record of professional advancement, write it down."
- Explain Unemployment or Gaps in Your Work History: Otherwise-qualified candidates who don't articulate good reasons for being out of a job or for a gap in their employment run a high risk of being screened out.
- Never Overstate Your Qualifications: Oates advises candidates to avoid exaggerating qualifications in order to be seen as a perfect match to an advertised opening. "Your cover letter, like your resume, should be completely truthful and accurate," Oates says. "Never falsify or misrepresent your background."
- Follow the Rules of Business Writing: "I like to see coherency, fluid sentences and concise writing," Anderson says. "Leave out the flowery language and generic descriptions, don't include personal details like your marital status, don't forget to include your contact information and of course, make sure you spell-check." Consult business-writing references for guidance.
Anyone who's ever applied for a job knows how stressful it can be. And for some, the hardest part is the cover letter.
It should be professional, but make you stand out. It should be short, but not too short.
While a cover letter can seem like a formality, it's an important first step in the process.
"It's your personal sales brochure," said James Innes, chairman of the James Innes Group and author of several career books. No wonder it's so daunting.
Here are a few tips to help you pen the cover letter most likely to get you hired.
Read the job posting closely
"The things that come at the top of the job description are the most important," said Martin Yate, career coach and bestselling author of the Knock 'Em Dead series.
To make sure you highlight the traits your potential employer really cares about, refer to the skills listed in the job posting to inform how you talk about yourself in your letter.
Yate suggested going a step further by reviewing job listings at several companies, and seeing if any skills or traits are repeated across an industry. "I would recommend collecting half a dozen job postings," he said. "Look at what they have in common."
Quality over quantity
When you're first looking for jobs, it can be tempting to send out a generic cover letter to as many employers as possible. But that doesn't work, Innes said. Recruiters can tell, and they don't like it.
Keith Bevans, head of Bain & Company's global consultant recruiting, warned that a poor cover letter can hurt an applicant's chances of getting the job. "The cover letter becomes an important data point on how good they are at certain skills that might be relevant to the job they're applying for," he said.
Related: How to answer the salary question during a job interview
Make a good first impression by ditching "to whom it may concern." Instead, look for the name of a hiring manager and address it to them. You should also try to find out a little bit about them, and say something nice about their achievements. "If you can flatter someone in the opening line and create a connection, you've got their attention," said Yate.
Tell a good story
Once you've determined what matters to employers, figure out what type of story you want to tell about yourself -- and be succinct.
"The best cover letters tend to be short and to the point," Bevans said. You don't want to repeat what's in your résumé.
Rather than telling employers what you think you're capable of, tell them what you've already achieved. "People are hired on credentials, not potential," said Yate. "We want to leave out things like 'I think I could do a great job.'" Offer specific, relevant examples, Innes added.
Related: What top employers look for in new college grads
Bevans noted that if you're going to use buzzy terms to describe yourself, you should be able to back them up. "A lot of students write cover letters that are like treasure maps with no treasure," he said. "If you say you're a good team player" you should have a specific example to back that up, said Bevans.
Stick to clean templates
Yate recommended using one of two possible cover letter formats. The first is a simple letter, made up of a few paragraphs and lasting no longer than a single page. First get your reader's attention with a personal reference, then name the position you're applying for. In the following paragraphs, lay out your relevant skills and experiences. Conclude by outlining an actionable next step. Rather than telling the reader you look forward to hearing from them, say you'll reach out by a certain date to follow up.
The second format is called an executive briefing. You still write a paragraph at the top explaining what you're applying for, and one at the bottom with a plan of action. But instead of writing out some paragraphs in between, set up two columns: One with a list of requirements pulled form the job posting, and one with a list of your corresponding skills and achievements. This format lets recruiters see clearly why your experience makes you a good fit for the job.
Check your work
"Presentation is important," said Innes. That means not only that your cover letter should be cleanly laid out, but also that your spelling and grammar have to be perfect.
"Recruiters sit and read through a lot of résumés," Innes said. "You become very good at spotting those errors." Chances are, he said, recruiters will just trash a cover letter with spelling or grammatical errors.
CNNMoney (New York) First published November 16, 2017: 10:27 AM ET