November 06, 2002

Why Cover Letters Matter, and How to Create Good Ones

In today's tough employment market, when job seekers can e-mail their résumés to dozens of potential bosses in a matter of seconds, it may seem that sending a customized cover letter is an old-fashioned formality that will soon be obsolete.

"The cover letter is fluff," says Nila Carrington, associate director of human resources at ALSAC/St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, in Memphis. She says she generally doesn't read cover letters and instead zeroes in on the specific job experiences detailed in the résumés, which she expects to be concise, free of self-promotional hype, and letter-perfect. "I'd forgive someone not sending a cover letter at all," she says, "before I'd forgive a typo in the résumé."

But Ms. Carrington appears to be in a stark minority. Most nonprofit employers say they place a great deal of importance on well-written, brief, yet substantive cover letters that help differentiate candidates with similar educational and employment backgrounds.

At the Institute of International Education, in New York, the director of human resources, Joan Wall, says she holds different levels of expectation for cover letters, depending on the job being filled.

"For an entry-level position, I just want something that looks nice, decent, and that makes you stand out from the crowd," Ms. Wall says. "When you're talking about someone at the director level or management level, you expect them to point to areas where they have reasonable experience and to sell themselves a little bit."

Even for senior jobs, however, she says she is surprised at how often she receives résumés with no cover letters, or form letters that have not been personalized or pitched at a specific job or organization.

Tailoring the Appeal

Cover letters, say nonprofit employers, are where job seekers should demonstrate that they have thought specifically about matching their skills and experience to the specific position that is being filled. In response to a recent posting for a new director of marketing at the Greater Boston Food Bank, Carol Teinken, the charity's chief operating officer, says she received many letters that discussed past accomplishments without drawing any relationship to the job at hand.

"I'm looking for substance and relevance," she says. "The things people choose to point out to you are very telling. Somebody writes to me and says, 'I've grown a $500-million business.' That's fine, but how does it relate to what I'm doing for hunger?"

Ms. Teinken says she recently received a résumé and cover letter from a man whose marketing background was mostly in high-end drug manufacturing.

"This guy followed up with an indignant phone call as to why we hadn't considered him," she says. "I could not understand why he'd want to come work here. All he was saying was that he was a guy without a job. He'd done no research, no connecting of the dots."

Making an explicit connection between a candidate's abilities and an open job's requirements is far more important than any eye-catching gimmick, nonprofit employers say. For the marketing-director position, Ms. Teinken has received some very creative materials: CD-ROM's, references to personal Web sites, bulletin-style cover letters in bright colors and unusual typefaces. But these mass-produced materials often read like overly enthusiastic advertising copy on behalf of the candidate, and not products of the thought and care that comes with tailoring an appeal, she says.

At the American Institute for Cancer Research, in Washington, unsolicited, generic-looking cover letters and résumés often arrive in the mailbox of John McIlveen, the institute's director of human resources and administration. They look, he says, as if the writers "went to some kind of class. They're usually addressed to the 'executive director' and list the supposedly awe-inspiring things these people have done. They're obviously not personalized, and they all look exactly the same." Mr. McIlveen says he generally doesn't pay much attention to cover letters, but will skim them for key words that indicate the candidate has a relevant work history: "If I'm asking for five years of fund-raising experience, and you sold Girl Scout cookies 20 years ago, don't bother applying."

'Don't Get Cute'

Mr. McIlveen says it upsets him when job seekers fail to follow the explicit instructions he puts in his listings -- for example, when they ignore the "no phone calls" request, or neglect to answer the ad's question regarding salary history and expectations. "The bottom line is, if you need a certain amount and it's going to be too much, well, it's going to be too much anyway, so you may as well say it," he says.

He adds that he is not the least bit impressed by paper that is perfumed or printed with designs, or by résumés and cover letters that come in binders. "Just keep it simple," he urges. "I'm just going to throw the binder in the trash."

Cliff Reyle, director of human resources at Youth Villages, in Memphis, an organization that provides counseling and other assistance to troubled youths and their families, says that because of his charity's social-services orientation, he sometimes sees letters printed on flowery paper or otherwise handled in a very informal manner. Because some social-service groups have a loose office culture, he says, some job seekers believe it is appropriate to adopt a similar tone in their materials, Mr. Reyle says. "But that's not how we operate here," he says. "We use sound business principles." Thus, he is looking for a traditional, straightforward cover letter that makes a point and draws the connection between the writer and the job.

Candidates should keep in mind that the cover letter is usually their only chance to introduce themselves to an employer who is prepared to make a quick judgment, says Mr. Reyle. "Especially if you don't have direct experience in the work we do, the cover letter helps position you. I'm looking for attitude, teachability, and where you're coming from," Mr. Reyle says. "Some people try some funky things, go to the extreme with flowery descriptions of the job they had, instead of being straight with it. Unfortunately, that makes me wonder if they are trying to put a spin on something or hide something."

Mr. McIlveen echoes that concern and cautions job seekers against overblown descriptions. Recently, he says, a software developer who applied to the American Institute for Cancer Research styled himself as a "customer management visionary" in his Web-page résumé. "What does that mean?" asks Mr. McIlveen. "Don't get cute. What is the point here?"

Writing Is Fundamental

Along with substance, relevance, and efficiency, hiring officers say they are always looking for correct spelling and grammar -- whether or not the job requires writing skills -- and are dismayed by the frequency of typos and errors in the materials they see. The cover letters Mr. Reyle sees, he says, reflect poorly on the nation's educational system.

"Most of our jobs require at least a bachelor's degree, but I get many letters with very poor grammar," he says. "How did this person get through college? Our business has a lot of documentation that requires accuracy."

When a job candidate sends an error-filled letter and résumé, he says, their other qualifications may not matter: "They've pulled a gun out and shot themselves in the foot from the outset."

Employers and recruiters hold a variety of opinions about whether it is best to e-mail a résumé and cover letter rather than send it via the post office -- although an obvious rule is to choose only from the delivery methods and formats solicited in the actual advertisement for the job. Nonprofit job seekers should also keep in mind that many charities, especially small organizations, may not have the most sophisticated office technology and thus may have difficulty opening e-mail attachments. In general, the candidate should consider the recipient's convenience, not his or her own, nonprofit employers say.

For example, some organizations use search committees to fill managerial openings, and thus may need to copy cover letters and résumés for committee members. For those reasons, Susan Egmont, a search consultant in Norwell, Mass., cautions against using colored paper that is too dark to photocopy well -- white or off-white paper works best, she says. Also, Ms. Egmont warns, "don't use paper that's 1/16th of an inch thick. It's beautiful but looks horrible when I try to fax it to committee members."

On extremely rare occasions, of course, a job seeker might be in a position to bend one or some of these general rules about cover letters. Ms. Teinken says she recently received a beautifully handwritten letter, which she considered both eye-catching and dignified. She admitted that because most people have pretty bad penmanship, she would never advocate handwritten letters as a general rule. However, she says, this candidate was a veteran in the nonprofit field, and obviously felt comfortable taking a small risk.

While he did not ultimately land the job for reasons unrelated to his cover letter, Ms. Teinken notes that his surprising gesture did win him an interview and make his materials stand out: "It got him in the door," she says. And that is all that can be expected of any cover letter: to earn its writer a chance to make his or her case in person.