Cover Letter Conundrum

Letter in garbage

In the job search, we spend so much time working on our resume and preparing for interviews and campus visits, that the cover letter often gets overlooked in the process. That is because they are a conundrum, and they are a conundrum for a few reasons. The most important one is the dirty little secret that in many searches most of the people on the committees don’t read the cover letters or, at best, just give them a glance. Phil Rosenberg, president of reCareered, in 2009 surveyed more than 2,000 hiring managers, HR representatives, and recruiters from different industries and discovered that cover letters rarely come into play. He found that 90% of those surveyed ignored the cover letter and 97% decided to grant an interview based solely on the resume.

Given time constraints, on-line application systems, and the number of applicants for some positions, it should not be a surprise that people cut to the chase—the resume. The resume is assumed to be the vehicle that contains all the necessary information to determine the status of the applicant. The fact that you can spend a lot of time on a letter that is ignored can be a painful realization, but it’s one of the realities of a job search.

Of course, what makes it a conundrum is that you can’t ignore or take your cover letter completely for granted because there will be those searches where cover letters are read and scrutinized for information that will help the committee make a good decision regarding the applicants in the pool.

So, what is one to do? There are a few options.

Write a Standard Cover Letter
Basically, you can choose not to spend a lot of time on the cover letter. It can be a one page, personal, well-written, but somewhat formulaic, letter. That is, you address it to a specific person (not “To Whom it May Concern”). Then, in the first paragraph you introduce yourself and identify what job you are applying for. In the second paragraph, you identify a few items from your resume that relate directly to the job and institution in question. Then wrap it up wishing them the best of luck in their search, expressing confidence in your ability to make a contribution to the institution, and encouraging them to contact you for an interview. Basically, you focus it on the job you are applying for, but you don’t spend a lot of time on it.

If you do write a standard cover letter, then you should perhaps…

Put Part of Your Cover Letter on Your Resume
More and more, I am recommending to applicants for entry and mid-level student affairs jobs to include a section at the top of their resume entitled “Summary of Qualifications.” This is a 2-3 sentence paragraph that provides the filter through which the evaluator should read your resume. It must be evocative while trying hard to avoid being clichéd.

Something like:
I am a dynamic, creative, results-producing hall director who seeks to take the next step in my evolution as a residence life professional. In my various grad and professional positions, I have created strong staffs, developed vibrant communities, and produced (and documented) learning and development outcomes among the students in my charge. I am especially proud of the work I have done in promoting community and engagement through social media.

It goes beyond the facts of the resume, shares a bit of your personality, and [hopefully] captures their attention and now has them looking for the evidence of these assertions in your resume.

Or…

You Can Take a Greater Risk
You can write a letter that is meant to stand out and grab the attention of the reader. This is a risk, because what in your mind is an appropriate way to have your letter stand out, may turn off a reader who is expecting the standard letter identified in the first section above.

I tend to recommend taking the risk to do this only in special circumstances, typically when the position you are applying for is a bit of a stretch or you assume that many of the people in the applicant pool may have more experience than you. Your job is twofold: catch the reader’s attention; and then stand out in some way so that the reviewers will see the quality of your experience to be equal or better than others who may have been at it a longer period of time.

I don’t have a particular formula for making this happen. Obviously, the attention grabber has to be in some way visual, because it needs to stop the person who is just glancing at cover letters before putting them to the side in order to focus on the resume. It might be the font, the format, the use of bold (or color), the use of symbols (emojis, anyone?), or something else. It can’t be over the top, it just needs to be a hook; needs to get the reader to focus on the page and to read the first paragraph. That’s where you set the hook. Write something that will compel them to read on. That starts with a powerful first sentence.

  • I have left every position better than I found it. [Follow with specific evidence that can be confirmed on your resume.]
  • I have produced documented results in every job I have undertaken. [Make sure each section in your resume includes such accomplishments.]
  • Here are the specifics that I can deliver in this role. [Then follow with specifics focusing on the primary elements in the job ad.]

You want to state something for which there will be evidence in your resume. You can’t say you are result-oriented and then share no results in the resume. The danger and risk is that such assertive, confident statements can be interpreted as arrogant and turn off the evaluator. It wouldn’t be a risk if there were no possible downside.

So, the way I see it is that there is the safe way to go and the risky way. The situation will tilt you in one direction or the other, but it ultimately comes down to the degree of comfort you have in taking such risks.

Best of luck!

Comments, critiques, disagreements, and other ideas are very much welcome! Also, please feel free to share great or horrible examples of cover letters with me at pglove33@gmail.com.

Please follow me at @pglove33 and tweet your job search questions at me.

For the whole job search story, get my book Job Searching in Student Affairs: Strategies to Land the Position YOU WantSeriously, it will be the best $9.99 you spend this week!

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One comment

  1. I scan cover letters to see how well an applicant can concisely captivate me on their transferable skills and what sets them apart….then its on to scan the resume. I advocate the “take a greater risk” approach. You want the job, put the effort in!

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