Friends Judith Muhlberg and Bruce Harrison invited me to speak to their Georgetown grad class a few weeks ago. Later, they passed along a number of follow up questions that the students wish we could have discussed further. Drawing the most “please elaborate” comments was my passing reference to the unimportant resume cover letter, so I’ll respond here.
Too much attention is spent on training people to write elaborate cover letters when a short, to-the-point transmittal note is all that is necessary. For a while, I collected the worst cover letters as examples of what not to do. But that file got too large that I got rid of it when I moved offices recently. What I recall is that they all contained lofty claims of experience that had little relevance to what appeared on the actual resume. Often, it appeared as if the letters were written by someone who hadn’t seen the resumes, and that might have been the case since some job seekers employ cover-letter templates and writing services.
Making matters worse, many of the letters carry the generic “Dear Sir/Madame” salutation–therefore demonstrating they didn’t take the time to figure out who should receive the resume. If you insist on writing a letter, be sure to direct it to a real person. And keep it short. The more you say in your cover letter sets up opportunities for people to judge what you’ve written.
Best bet, direct your resume and a brief email cover note to the head of human resources or recruiting officer. These email addresses often are on company and agency websites. If you know people within a firm where you wish to apply, you can send a personal note to those individuals asking them to forward the resume to appropriate individuals. (Most agency insiders are eager to do so since they can be rewarded with a significant “finders fee” if you are hired as a result of their referral). When in doubt, call the agency or company to determine who receives resumes.
An earlier post discussed how a cover letter can help or kill job chances. It also carries links to sites that offer cover letter templates. Just be sure to chose the shortest transmittal letters possible. Focus on what really counts–your resume.