The Transformational Power of the Cover Letter
Some people think Cover Letters are going the way of the Dodo. These days most people rely on a short, poorly-written email introduction for a resumé or a few words on a job application web portal. Both are poor reflections, in my opinion, on the person seeking work. Call me old-fashioned, but in my book a well-written Cover Letter will always separate the wheat from the chaff. I cannot count the number of times I have encountered a “ho-hum” resumé, been tempted to toss it in the “No” pile, only to read a knock out Cover Letter that gets me on the telephone to organize an interview. Like the title says, a Cover Letter has transformative power.
Doubt me if you want, but here is the thing about Cover Letters… Resumés are fact-based. They inform an Employer or Recruiter about a person’s skills, but they do not convey a sense of the person. On the other hand, a well-written Cover Letter that tells a compelling story, will always have an impact on the reader. It provides a glimpse of personality, a sense of those soft skills that should never be included on a resumé, and sufficiently piques the curiosity of the reader so that they are calling the Candidate in for an interview. In other words, a “ho-hum” resumé can be transformed by a knock out Cover Letter so that those all-important interview gates are opened.
Convinced yet? Okay, you’re still skeptical. Try this argument then. A resumé is factual and a little cold. It is the nature of its purpose - to convey a Candidate’s skills and experience to an Employer. A Cover Letter, however, is a warm narrative that has the potential to seduce a reluctant Recruiter into granting an Applicant an interview. In other words, it did its job.
So, what goes in to writing a fantastic Cover Letter?
Let’s start off with the question “what is a Cover Letter?” Put simply, it is the cover page that introduces your resumé. It is more personal and should never repeat information that is on your resumé. Think of it as a separate document with a fundamentally different purpose than a resumé. A Cover Letter is a sales pitch that says as much about you as it does about the prospective Employer.
This latter bit is important. Candidates should be able to intuit through a job advertisement the Employer’s desires, wants and needs. I call this process discovering the “aches and pains” of the Principal. A Cover Letter identifies those “aches and pains” and then offers a remedy. That remedy is you, the Applicant.
A Cover Letter must always demonstrate that the Applicant has done their homework and has a basic understanding of the Employer. I already can hear the arguments against. “Oh, that’s so corporate,” or “Private Service is different.” My answer to that is yes, but also no.
Is it so difficult to identify and understand what a Homeowner is looking for in an Employee? Is it beyond comprehension that ultimately a Homeowner seeks security for their residence? They want to ensure that their property is in good hands, managed well, and that staff are performing to the family’s particular standards. When the door to a home is opened, Homeowners want to feel good as they cross the threshold. After being away for two weeks, a Principal should not be experiencing anxiety when they walk through the front door. These things are the aches and pains of Domestic Staff Employers and a successful Cover Letter addresses them.
Make sure to format your Cover Letter like a Business Letter. It should look professional. The Internet is your friend since it holds so many examples of Business Letter templates. It should go without saying, and yet it requires saying, there should be no typos or grammatical errors. The letter represents you and spelling mistakes cast Applicants in a very poor light. They suggest, fairly or unfairly, that the Applicant is careless, not detail-oriented and oblivious to conducting necessary due diligence. In other words, if a well-written Cover Letter can open doors, one that is poorly conceived will most certainly slam those same doors shut.
A Cover Letter should be no more than one page and every word in it should be meaningful and relevant. The writing must be tight and direct. Boilerplate language, jargon and clichés are to be avoided. Instead, think of your Cover Letter as a narrative of your career. It should tell a story that captures the interest of the reader.
So, what do I mean by turning a Cover Letter into a narrative?
Well, I can tell you what I do not mean. A Cover Letter should never start with a boring introduction like “I’m applying for the '123' job you advertised in The Daily Post.” “Yawn.” And then “Yawn” again. Seriously, I cannot think of a more uninspiring opening. It is impersonal and unnecessary. Instead of using valuable Cover Letter space, include this detail in the Reference Line (i.e. “RE: Job 123 as advertised in The Daily Post”). A Reference Line always appears above the Salutation Line.
The first few sentences of any Cover Letter are critical and should speak directly to the interests of the employer. In other words, those first few sentences are not about you. They are about the Employer and this is where knowing and understanding an Employer’s aches and pains comes in to play. You want them to quickly get the sense that “this person understands me, so I’m going to read on.” If you can do that, consider "Cover Letter Mission Objective 1" accomplished.
"Cover Letter Mission Objective 2" is to pivot and write one, possibly two, strong paragraphs about yourself. Here’s the caveat though. Even when you are writing about yourself, you are not really writing about yourself. Everything should tie in to those “aches and pains” you identified at the beginning of the project.
Pick two, possibly three skills and / or accomplishments that relate directly to the aspirations of your prospective Employer. The language must be direct and concise. A Cover Letter is not the place to get bogged down in detail. Save the detail for the interview. Just make sure that your professional examples are relevant. And by relevant, I mean that they should speak to the Employer and their wants and desires.
End your cover letter with an affirmative sentence that declares why you want to work for this particular Employer. Employers want to hear this. They do not want to read boilerplate language describing how you are the ideal candidate for the job and blah, blah, blahhhh. Once again, “Yawn” since every other Applicant is writing a close approximation of that very sentence. Your goal as an Applicant is not to be like every other Candidate. Your goal is to stand apart from the field. There is a Caribbean saying about "being a crab in a bucket of crabs." Trust me, you don't want to be that crab.
You are not done until you edit your copy. If a sentence still works after removing a few words, then remove those words. The result will likely be a stronger, more assertive sentence. Strive to be minimal. It’s a good thing.
Finally, please have someone proofread your copy. You have come this far. A simple spelling error or getting a name incorrect will undo all of your hard work, and that is always a shame since it is so avoidable. Read your letter out loud. It should sound good to your ear. If it reads awkwardly, the fault is likely in the writing. Then get a friend or trusted colleague to proofread your work and provide you with feedback. Just remember that a Cover Letter is a Business Letter and should never be casual in tone.
Cover Letters are not for the lazy. But then, job searches are not for the lazy. Both require hard work, persistence, assertiveness, and creativity. A good Cover Letter has transformative power. It can turn a mediocre resumé into something much more potent. Ultimately, if it is done right, it can open the door to an interview. Once that is accomplished, it is all about you, the Applicant. When you get there, and you will, I wish you the best of luck!
© Portico Inc, 2017
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