AMY LINDGREN: Three rules for cover letters

Job search paperwork can be a drag, to put it mildly. Hours spent on developing or revising one’s resume pale against the time devoured by online applications. LinkedIn profiles can go relatively quickly but posting them can be tedious. With all of the effort devoted to finding just the right words to describe the last job and the one before that, it’s no wonder job seekers fade when it comes to writing cover letters.

The challenge with cover letters is to say what needs to be said, when it needs to be said, the way it needs to be said – all in a timely enough manner that you can get the thing out the door before everyone involved retires and moves to Florida.

Yes, that’s sarcasm. But it’s warranted, since this is definitely a situation where great is the enemy of good, as they say. Given the speed with which most letters and resumes are reviewed, the chances of your perfect phrasing being appreciated are somewhat slim. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write well, or take your time to create a good document. It does mean you should put a limit on the exercise so you don’t spend all day on a single letter, as many job seekers do.

Better yet, if you can create a few handy templates with boilerplate language, you’ll be able to produce compelling letters quickly enough to keep your job search process humming along.

I have a few templates to share but you’ll have to wait until next week, as they take some space to set up. In the meantime, let me share some rules of the road that will help you develop good letters, not only for the job search process but in pretty much any aspect of your work life.

Rule 1: Cover letters are business writing. If you’ve taken a course on business writing, then you know the practice is governed by two factors: Audience and message. Anything written for business must keep these two elements in focus in order to succeed.

For cover letters, that means identifying who is receiving your letter – a recruiter? The hiring manager? A friend who is passing your materials forward? – before you can determine which details to include, and what tone to use. When in doubt, go with a semi-formal tone. Not, “Herewith I present my materials” nor “Check out the attachment to see what I’ve been up to” but rather, “I’m attaching my resume and a project addendum that describe my experience.”

The message part of the equation can be summarized in a simple question to ask yourself: What does this person need to know in order to make the decision to interview? If you are responding to a posted opening, you should probably refer to at least a few of the requested qualifications. Even more importantly, if you have a prior connection to the company, or if you’re being referred by a mutual contact, that should be noted – your “message” in this case is that you are worth meeting for more reasons than just your work history.

Rule 2. Cover letters convey personality. Where a resume is generally neutral in tone, and most often avoids the first-person voice, a cover letter comes more directly from the individual. This is one reason advocates of letters prefer them – they want to get a “feel” for the candidate.

For practiced writers, this goal can be achieved with things like sentence structure and careful word choice. But remembering that time is of the essence, less confident writers can achieve good enough results by simply stating a few more personal points with clarity: “I’m an outgoing person who enjoys working on teams, which is one of the many reasons I’d like to learn more about this position” or, “In my bird watching hobby, I’ve learned to be patient and observant, which has made me better in my job as a clinic receptionist.”

3. Cover letters make connections. If you’ve never heard of this company and know nothing about the work, one could argue you’re not ready to write a letter, much less consider working there. Even so, some quick internet research should provide you enough to work within crafting your letter.

The connections themselves could be as simple as “My six years in the field make me a good candidate” or a more nuanced “As a longtime user of your products and frequent trainer on their use, I have been a fan of XYZ Company for most of my career.”

Now that you know more about the strategy of cover letters, you’re ready to start writing. Come back next week and I’ll share some template concepts that can make the project go more quickly.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.

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