"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 desired qualifications the ad outlines.
"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 keep it 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, the position and industry you're targeting, 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:
1. 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."
2. 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.
3. 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."
4. 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.
5. 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."
6. Explain Unemployment or Gaps in 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.
7. 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."
8. 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.