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Banishing Bad Cover Letters

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Banishing Bad Cover Letters

By Michelle Yozzo Drake

My company was recently looking for new administrative help, and as the cover letters and resumes came rolling in, I was shocked at how poorly written most of them were. With all the spelling and grammar checks, with all the "Resume Wizards", and with all of the zillions of bytes of information out there on the Internet, how could someone submit such jumbled messes and expect to be called for an interview?

One applicant addressed the letter to "Michaela Blake" and then led with the salutation "Dear Sires"!

Another applicant failed to mention what job he was applying for!

One cover letter went on and on and on...but never got to any sort of a point!

And my "favorite" letter not only had horrible typographical errors, but the person left in the name of someone else they were sending the letter to, talked about how much money they wanted to make, and in the same paragraph, gave me a list of their weaknesses ("But I'm sure you'll find that I'm going to be really good at this job") and practically begged me not to call their current employer!

Yikes! Do you think I called any of these people in for an interview? Or do you think I quickly filed their info away...in my trash can?

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For those of you out there who don't think the cover letter means much, let me tell you: IT DOES. The cover letter is a very critical part of the whole job hunting process. Think about reading a newspaper with no headlines. Without that headline, you wouldn't know what the article was about, and you wouldn't be able to distinguish one article from the next. Your cover letter is your headline for employers as they look through the sea of resumes coming across their desks. You want to be able to grab their attention and really make them take notice of your resume so that you get put into the pile that gets the interview.

First thing's first: get to the point quickly. Don't ramble, and don't waste space with a lot of gobbledygook (you might think that long, philosophical quote is impressive, but in reality, it's a yawner). Identify the job you're applying for in the first line - many employers and recruiters are trying to fill multiple jobs, and if you're not clear which one you want, they're not going to take the time to figure it out. Follow up with your most positive qualities up front and center. Pay attention to all of the details: typos and grammatical errors make you appear sloppy, ill-prepared and not at all detail-oriented.

Tailor your letter specifically for each company. Don't fall into the trap of the "mail merge"! Do your research on the company where you're applying and add a detail about them in the letter so they know how committed you are to getting this job. Focus on the needs of the company - look to the job ad for clues, and if it's a job you found out about through a referral, pump that person for as much info as you can.

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Don't regurgitate everything that's in your resume. Remember that your cover letter is the sales pitch; it's not all the details about what you actually have to offer. You want to give them just enough to make them want to learn more. Write your sales letter from the perspective of "what's in it for the company" versus "what's in it for me." Don't say that you're applying for the job because of the travel opportunities, because the job is closer to your home, or because you think that you can make more money. The company isn't interested in all that; they're interested in what value you're going to bring to their organization.

Balance humility and confidence. The last thing you want is to be projecting arrogance - it's a total turnoff and probably won't get you the interview. On the other hand, don't completely downplay your strengths and accomplishments. This IS your sales pitch after all. Remember that your cover letter and resume are not to get you the job; they're to get you the interview, and the INTERVIEW is going to get you the job. So pique their curiosity by giving them enough information so that they know that you match what they're looking for and will want to discuss your qualifications further.

And finally, I can't stress this enough: make sure that someone proofreads your cover letter and your resume before you send it out!


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“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe