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cover letters that communicate effectively:

Find the right candidate quicker.

by Shari Barnes

Finding the right candidate quickly is the most common objective of all human resource departments. In terms of preliminary screening, an Automated Response System (via your web site or by phone) is an invaluable tool for collecting replies to key questions. If you include behavioral questions to reveal more of the integrity, determination, and trustworthiness of an applicant, you are much closer to locating the right candidate, with better cost and time efficiencies, than with any conventional screening methods. However, at some point, you may still invite candidates to send in a resume with a cover letter. If you have not provided guidelines for resume submissions, narrowing the field further can still present several challenges. Here’s how one Director of Human Resources approached the problem in an open letter to all job candidates.


“First, the bad news. I can't interview all candidates, so self-preservation demands I narrow the field. This isn't what you want to hear, but I'm looking for reasons to exclude you so I can reduce this batch to a manageable number. I will give your cover letter 20 seconds to convince me you're a viable contestant. If you want to pass "Go" and collect $200, this is what I need from you:”

“Show Me You Can Spell...It doesn't matter that you never made it past the first round of Mrs. Armstrong's first grade spelling bee or that the spelling gene is missing from your family tree. And don't delude yourself that the job for which you're applying doesn't require you to spell. It does.

When spelling errors jump out on your cover letter, I can't see anything else. Misspelled words flash with neon intensity, and they blind me to your other accomplishments. If you are spelling-challenged, overcome that deficiency by activating your computer's spell-check. Among your relatives and friends you can find at least one person who would love to take a red pen to your cover letter and mark spelling errors. A cover letter that rates less than an "A+" in spelling moves you to the rejection pile.”

“Show Me That Your Writing Communicates...Do not sprinkle your cover letter with adverbs and adjectives. I am not interested in hiring John Grisham or Emily Dickinson. When you declare yourself as efficient, effective, outstanding, motivated, capable, proficient, energetic and accomplished, I haven't the foggiest notion what you mean.

If you want to catch my attention, quantify your accomplishments. Give me numbers, figures and percentages. Tell me you recruited 100 volunteers for the AIDS walk-a-thon...decreased cost overruns by 50% in the last fiscal year...cut customer complaints by 75%...administered a $90,000 supply budget, etc.

Write tightly and concisely, and keep your paragraphs short. Vary the length of your sentences, and use a single-sentence paragraph if you want to emphasize a particular point. Keep me awake with appropriate use of boldface or italics, but don't overdo it. Unless the job calls for it, I won't grade your graphic arts capabilities.”

“Show Me You Have the Basic Requirements Plus...If this job requires a bachelor's degree, two years management experience and spread sheet proficiency, I expect your resume to substantiate these requirements. Please do not tell me in your cover letter that you have two years of college, no employment history and database capability but you know you can do the job because you're a fast learner.

Core skills put you in the game, but I want to know about your broader range of skills if they apply to this position. Include information in a cover letter that may not be appropriate for a generic resume. For example, it's wise to avoid strong emphasis on religious or political affiliations. These are personal associations and have the potential to sabotage your job search. Also, under normal circumstances your resume will not include honors and activities prior to college.

However, assuming you're applying for a position with the county Democratic Party Headquarters, the cover letter is ideal for indicating that you stuffed envelopes and transported senior citizen voters as a volunteer in a specific politician’s political campaign. Or if you're applying at Catholic Charities, talk about your altar boy experience. By the same token, the Girl Scouts may hire you as a counselor if they know you earned 25 merit badges in junior high school.”

“Show Me Your Research Skills...It's important that you connect what I'm buying to what you're selling. What objectives can you help me accomplish? Focus on my needs, not yours. Harsh as it may sound, I'm curious about what you can do for me, not what I can do for you. Customize your letter so I know it isn't the same one you sent to 50 other employers. How can you do this? Investigate my company. What products do we manufacture? Is this a Fortune 500 company or a Mom and Pop operation? Where are we located? The more you know about my organization, the more credible you become, and your cover letter will reflect your research.

The single most important thing you can show me in a cover letter is how your resume and my job opening come together. In order to do this, you have to examine the job advertisement or posting and analyze how your skills, education and experience match the position. Isn't it my job to do that? Yes. But when you make my job easier, I have a vested interest in hiring you.”

“Show Me a Class Act...Most job applicants pay little attention to their cover letter, so you're one jump ahead if you understand that this document is important. Is ivory or gray paper better than white? Gray may stand out from a stack of white, but colored paper won't get you hired. Forget fushcia or chartreuse unless this job begs for far-out creativity. Your best bet is heavy white paper printed with black ink. It copies well if I need to send your material to several departments. Make sure your cover letter paper and ink match the resume and envelope.

Margins are best at 1.5," and I prefer simple 12-point type. Save script and other fancy type faces for personal letters. If you want to make sure I know your letter is original, sign in blue ink.

If you want to impress me, address the letter to my correct name and title. Never assume I'm a "Dear Sir" or a "To Whom It May Concern." Call the company and ask to whom your letter should be addressed, and verify the spelling of my name.”

“Show Me Good Judgment...A beautifully-constructed cover letter is useless unless it results in an interview. Career search authors who never sat on the interviewer's side of the desk may subvert your efforts. Their theories can produce lethal boomerangs.

Experts frequently advise you to conduct an aggressive job search. Some suggest you end your cover letter with the statement that next Wednesday you'll be in for an interview. It's better to leave the appointment time and date to the interviewer's convenience, not yours.

When applying to a company with no advertised openings, request an informational interview. Tell the interviewer you'd like data about the company, the profession and potential opportunities in your field. This non-threatening approach obtains an appointment more readily than a focus on specific jobs which may or may not be open.”

“Show Me Originality...Entertain, impress and get to the point. Avoid stale openers like I am writing to apply for the opening...Please accept my resume for the position...In response to your advertisement. Give me a reason to distinguish your letter from all the others. You walk a fine line when it comes to originality, and it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between a fresh approach and too much cutesy. I wouldn't, for example, send your resume in a bottle or attached to a balloon. But a clever presentation combined with a professional approach is an unbeatable combination.

If someone referred you to this position, tell me. But do not drop influential names simply to dazzle me with important connections. If the mayor told you about this job during your weekly tennis game, it's OK to use her name. If your father plays golf with the mayor and she has no idea who you are, don't drop her name.”

“Show Me Good Manners...After your cover letter and resume have secured an interview, turn your attention to the next crucial piece of correspondence. It's doubtful that a thank-you note alone ever got someone a job, but send one anyway. Don't agonize over whether handwritten or typed is better. Either is okay. Tell the interviewer you appreciate his/her time, enjoyed meeting potential co-workers, and believe you could make a contribution to the organization's mission. Present yourself as polite, eager and industrious...exactly the person I want to hire.

Don't worry about writing the perfect cover letter. Nobody has done it yet. But if you can grab my attention in 20 seconds, I'll turn the page to review your resume.”

MindData Hint:
Use MindData’s Attitude Indexes to ensure the person you have selected is the same person who completed any web-based or telephone application. Look for cover letters to confirm characteristics revealed by any pre-screening behavioral evaluation. Then follow-up in the interview by referencing the same insights to provide final corroboration. If someone appears “out of character” when writing or answering your interview questions, chances are they had someone else complete their initial application.

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Sharon (Shari) Eurich Barnes is Director of Employee Relations for Texas Christian University. Complementing her human resource career, Ms. Barnes writes for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Working Mother, Women as Managers and Management Review. She also conducts private and court-ordered mediations.

In addition to hosting Books in Review on cable television, Ms. Barnes speaks on employment issues for professional associations and conferences.

Ms. Barnes received her Bachelor's degree from California Baptist University and Master's degree from Texas Christian University. Among other affiliations, she is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, American Society for Training and Development, American Association of University Women, Fort Worth Human Resource Association Board of Directors (past), College and University Personnel Association, Fort Worth Mayor's Committee for Disabled Persons, and Tarrant County Association of Mediators Board of Directors. Ms. Barnes has also been named to Who's Who Among American Women.

Comments and questions about this article: Shari Barnes.

The opinions expressed in articles by this author do not necessarily represent the opinions of MindData. These articles are provided as a means of informing you of current events and opinions that impact employers and the workplace.

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