The cover-up about cover letters

I wish I knew what makes a good cover letter. I was under the illusion that I did, but a few weeks of job search, and tens of cover letters resulting in very few phone calls have made me doubt my abilities. Oh, I know I’m a good writer, but like many good writers when they don’t get results from their writing, I assume that I am somehow missing the mark.

So, when researching what I’m doing wrong, I ran across the following article on Portal HR about The best cover letter. Quoting a Harvard Business Review blog post, the article recommends to avoid letters that simply review and recap the CV, form-letters, or letters that seek to stand out at any cost and end up being ridiculous, pathetic or embarrassing. The original author seems to hold with the view that cover letters aren’t truly necessary, except in very specific circumstances. Portal HR is a bit wiser, adding that sometimes employers ask for a letter. I would come with the corollary that in our Romanian business environment, most employers  EXPECT a letter, and the absence of it is a priori taken as an indication of the candidate’s limited interest in the position and unwillingness to stretch him or herself to obtain it.

So, if we are condemned to write cover letters, how do we best do it? What makes a good cover letter?

Here’s one answer I culled from the web though I can’t quite remember where:

The best cover letter is the one that makes me say: I want to meet this person immediately.

Well that sure is a lot of help.

What not to do is clearer. For you Romanian readers, check out Hot! on Portal HR to read some funny excerpts. But for everyone else, here’s a summary of what the pundits of the WWW see as a good letter.

FORM AND FORMAT

The best cover letters fulfill the basic requirements of a business letter:

– they have an address, a salutation, content, a closing, and enclosures, and are heavy on the contact details

– they respect the basics of good writing: spelling, grammar, sentence structure

– they are literate beyond basic writing skills, showing good command of vocabulary and business style

– they are, like all good writing must be, concise

In addition, the letter must follow the format and content instructions of the job ad, if such exist

– layouts should be simple and professional and any printed format should stay away from Elle Woods’ scented pink paper or similar

CONTENT

Recommendations are vaguer in terms of content. The consensus seems to be on the following:

– the letter must address a person, or at least the correct title of the person within the specific organisation (no To Whom It may Concern, Hiring Manager, or HR Department)

– the letter must reference the company and the position, both formally (I am applying for vacancy such and such in company such and such) and content-wise, meaning the responsibilities, qualities  and results highlighted in the letter must show that the original ad or job description was read and its implications understood, and the candidate is building a case for himself as an employee of the company, rather than for himself as a good professional in general. It stands to reason that since letters must be tailored for the job in such a manner, copy-pasting a template from somewhere is a major misstep.

– the letter must be relevant. This speaks to the above, that it must respond to the company’s stated needs, but more than that, its writer should be able to discern and detail his suitability to the most relevant of these characteristics, otherwise the letter is boring and long-winded.  Nor should the writer recap his CV, but rather prune to the relevant aspects, those that make him different from competitors.

– the writer should be able to give his or her best examples of achievements when building the suitability case. This means mature reflection, and the ability to summarize a positive outcome or experience in a few words, regardless of whether they are easily quantifiable or not.

– finally, the good cover letter should meet the golden medium between demonstrating personality and keeping a professional tone and approach. Here the recommendations are scarce, the main one being to rely on common sense.

Ok, confession time.  I’ve been guilty of infringement on a number of these recommendations. I’ve often addressed the letter generically, and my tone is invariably very stiff, which I am not at all. It’s just that my respect for correspondence is such that I shift into formal mode very quickly. It used to be great when I was writing letters to ministers, ambassadors and nobility, or on behalf of princesses, doesn’t serve me so well in the job market. So I guess the challenge of writing another article on demand for the contest organized by Flacarapranzuldincaserola and PortalHR (because I want to win a trip to Malta for my birthday) has taught me something. So after versioning this text into Romanian, it’s back to the job search, with better letters.

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