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Cover Letter: Write it then burn it

In the March 28, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader wants to get in the door. Will a good cover letter do it?

Question

cover letterI’ve been a loyal reader of your blog for about eight or nine years. I grew up in real tough circumstances on the streets of Detroit and as time went by I left that life and became an artist. I went west to Seattle where I became moderately successful with my music and was able to support myself by learning carpentry and eventually running my own business. I did this all without any formal education or training, but I worked my tail off.

All would be fine and well if that was all there was to the story. Ten years ago I was in a traumatic accident which changed my perspective. This accident planted in me a burning desire to go into medicine. After looking around and doing some research, I decided that instead of being a doctor, I would become an occupational therapist (OT). It’s a respected position that pays well.

Now I am less than a year away from graduation. While I have chosen a profession where I might be hard pressed not to find work, at 55 I do have some concerns.

My resume is all rock music and construction work. I don’t really know anything about corporate culture. In my old biz, you either know your stuff or you don’t and if you don’t, your ass is down the road. I’d love to be able to write a cover letter that can get me to a manager that actually hires. I’ve busted my butt to get good at this and I know I can do the job for them profitably. I’ve just got to find my way in.

By the way, I’ve also decided that not only do I want this “impossible” job but I also want to get hired at one of the top ten facilities for my specialty (trauma center rehab). How do I write this cover letter? Do you have any suggestions for me?

Nick’s Reply

Okay, it’s loaded question time. Two people want a job. One submits a well-written resume and a thoughtful cover letter. The other meets the hiring manager at an industry event and they talk for half an hour about their industry, their work, projects they’ve each done and share insights — and maybe a couple of beers.

Who’s more likely to get hired?

Now let’s add a twist. The second job seeker also wrote a thoughtful cover letter. The first, as we said, sent it in. The second burned it but discussed the topics from the letter with the manager.

Who’s more likely to benefit from their cover letter?

Now let’s get real. Most people would feel very awkward walking up to a manager at an event — it’s just uncomfortable. The second job seeker didn’t feel awkward because he used his cover letter as an outline for what to talk about.

Both job seekers did the work of writing a letter. But only one used the information in the cover letter effectively.

To get the right employer’s attention, you should write that cover letter, then burn it — because very few employers read cover letters any more. More important, you need to tell them your story face to face. We’ll discuss that in a minute, but first let’s start with what makes you a very good candidate.

Be the right candidate

People write resumes and cover letters to “market” an image of themselves. But it’s more important to be the right candidate for a particular company. That means picking the company is more important than what’s in your letter.

I think what you wrote in your e-mail can get you hired by the right employer. What you wrote tells me:

  • You’re in command of your life and yourself.
  • You decide where to go and what to do – and you do it.
  • You learn whatever you need to learn to do a job.
  • You persevere and you succeed.

That’s 90% of any job. I’d hire someone like you in a minute, over someone more skilled. The best managers want motivation and you have it in spades. Everything else can be taught and learned.

Your task is not to write a marketing letter. It’s to pick the right employers. See Pursue Companies, Not Jobs. Once you choose a handful of the best OT facilities, write your cover letter to show why you’re the right candidate — but don’t send it.

Write the cover letter

Write a cover letter similar to your e-mail. But use the old military rule for writing and speaking. Structure it in three parts.

  1. Tell them what you’re going to tell them.
  2. Tell them.
  3. Tell them what you told them.

That’s what makes a message sink in. It works.

Step 1

First, start by stating your goal:

“I want to work at one of the top ten trauma rehab facilities — yours. And I’d like to tell you why I’d be the best, most productive and profitable hire you can  make.”

Step 2

Then move on to the substance. Briefly list:

  • What you’ve done to prepare for the job: education, interning, and so on.
  • Outline your background, and explain you chose OT after experiencing trauma yourself.
  • How you came off the Detroit streets. Mention how many years ago that was, to show you’ve come a long way.
  • Talk briefly about becoming a successful artist, musician, carpenter, and having your own business.

Make it clear that you succeeded at everything you did by working very hard to make up for lack of formal education. Be brief. Then explain that OT was worth getting an education and that, like everything else you’ve done, you’ve accomplished it.

The most important part of this step is to name three things you know that are required to be successful in OT. Talk to your teachers and anyone you know in OT — ask them what it takes to be the best occupational therapist. It’s critical to get these three things right. You want to show the employer that you know what they really need in a hire.

Then close this part of the letter by making this commitment:

“I will work as hard as it takes to do those three things better than anyone else you might hire. That’s the commitment I make to you. It’s the same commitment I made to myself when I chose each line of work I had throughout my life.”

Phrase that so you’re happy with it. I’m just trying to give you the idea. Find your own words, so it sounds like you.

Step 3

Finally, recap and summarize what you’ve told them.

“I plan to work for one of the top 10 facilities in trauma rehab, to work hard, to learn quickly, and to help make my employer more successful and productive — just as I always have. I’d like to meet you to discuss your specific needs, and to show you how I’d handle them. If I can’t show you that, then you should not hire me.”

The best employers want commitment

The last sentence in the summary might seem a bit extreme. It’s the most important part of your statement.

Do you see what you’re doing with this letter? Making a commitment. Telling the employer I know what it takes to get hired — and that you don’t view interviews as a game. I’m going to show up ready to rock and roll. And if I don’t, don’t hire me. That’s a powerful statement.

Some centers won’t like this approach. Some will love it. Any kind of approach you make to an employer is risky, because if they don’t view life, work, and the world the way you do, they will not hire you and you’ll never even know why you were rejected. You don’t want to work with people like that.

The best employer for you sees things the way you do, and will instantly want to meet you.

If you want any job anywhere, then write a traditional cover letter. I’d never criticize you for that. But if you know exactly what you want, then portray yourself the way you really are. Embedded in the second of those three military presentation steps are three messages that will get you hired by the right employer:

  • Show you understand what the employer needs you to do.
  • Show how you’ll do it.
  • Make a commitment to do what it takes to be one of the best at the job.

If you need detailed help with that, see How Can I Change Careers?

Burn your cover letter

After you write that cover letter, you will have the outline for any interview you do. But please also remember this, which we discuss on Ask The Headhunter all the time: Most of the time, employers don’t find people through resumes. They find them through referrals from people they know and trust. (See How to launch a seemingly impossible career change.)

Employers don’t find their best hires in resumes, cover letters or databases.

So throw out that cover letter. Or burn it. Do not give it to any employer. HR departments and managers who don’t know you are not worthy of that letter. What I’m saying is, devote your job hunting efforts to finding ways to talk with worthy employers. When you meet the manager, say what you wrote in your cover letter.

Please read Getting in the door for advice about how to meet the manager who needs to hear, not read what you wrote.

Do your own talking

You can do this. Go hang out with people who do the work you want to do at the places where you want to do it. The person who gets hired is the one that isn’t afraid to walk up to the manager, and who has something valuable to say. That’s why you should write a cover letter — but don’t expect that letter to do your talking.

My guess is, this is how you got every job you’ve ever had. That puts you ahead of your competition, who will send documents (resumes and cover letters) to speak for them.  Maybe you don’t realize it, but you have an edge over all of them because your work ethic and motivation matter more than anything else at this juncture.

It’s good you have some time before you graduate, because this takes time. I’m impressed with how you live your life and make your choices. If this helps in anyway, I’ll be glad. Let me know how it goes! I wish you the best.

Do you use a cover letter, or do online application systems make them useless? How would you advise this highly motivated job seeker to get a hiring manager’s attention?

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22 Comments
  1. Interesting timing for this topic (career change). I’m about to make one myself. And with no resume or cover letter. I was in software development for a couple of decades, and have now hit the point (being in my mid-50s) where it’s harder to maintain employability. I decided a couple of years ago after much thought and weighing my options that I wanted to train racehorses (I saw the writing on the wall). Like the person asking your advice above, I went back to school (before my programming career ended) to learn what I could about horses. I’m finishing that degree this fall online. After doing my research and corresponding with several racing officials, I found that if I can work as a groom (the worst job in sports) for a couple of years, I can work into a position as an assistant trainer, then get my own trainers license sometime after that (my plan is 1-3 years, depending on how long it takes me to learn the ropes).

    Now for the tough part – I don’t have much experience with horses, so how do I get that first job as a groom? Fortunately for me, in 3 weeks there’s a week-long seminar in Kentucky that will train me for just such a position, and even put me in contact with potential employers. Their seminars have an excellent track record (no pun intended) of training and placing grooms. Needless to say, I’m signed up, it’s paid for (only $99, pretty cheap) and my hotel is booked. And like the person above, I’m highly motivated and have done a lot of studying of the industry. I’m saving the email with this copy of the newsletter, as I’m going to use the same advice when I talk to the instructor and trainers I come in contact with in Kentucky in a few weeks. Thanks Nick!

    • @Jim: I don’t encounter such extreme career changers as you very often. This is very cool. There’s a path to every career, but you have to look carefully to find it. Sometimes you have to kludge it. Perhaps the most profound thing you’re doing is to accept that you have to groom horses before you can train. The time will fly by and you’ll learn a lot, meet many people, and one of them will lead you to your next step.

      People naturally have a hard time with those very difficult first steps. The way I look at it is, you can spend 2 years getting education. a couple of years grooming, and more time learning about training. Or, you can do none of that and in 5 years look back and say, “Gee, if I’d done all that stuff over the past 5 years, I’d be training racehorses now. Instead, I’m an unemployed software developer staring down managers who want to hire someone who’s 25.”

      Who gets to go on a trip like the one you’re starting? People who want to go somewhere. My compliments. Thanks for sharing your story and plans! If anything in the column helps, I’m glad — and I’d love to hear about your progress. All the best to you!

      • Nick, I read your book (Ask The Headhunter) and have been reading your newsletters, blog and web site for years. I knew I’d be able to use your advice someday (well, I already did a couple of times during my IT career) so it’s all a big help. And it will be in the future as well. Thanks a million!

        And I’m not concerned with the major step down from being a consultant to grooming horses. After my last contract ended in December, I ended up taking a job at Wal-mart to make ends meet. I’ve already taken the step down. Now it’s time to change direction and go down the path I want to go.

    • What a wild career switch! What is the name of your new degree?

  2. Edited: I should have started with this;

    The best place for the OT person to start networking is with the OT’s who helped him when he was injured. Ask them what their professional organizations are and join all of them. He probably needs to do this, anyway, to earn CEs for his certifications.

    ***

    When I made the transition into my current career, also in the Seattle area, I pursued the education at North Seattle CC precisely because they offered an internship as part of the program. That was worth the price of admission, to me. Most people in the program do one internship, I did three, and I started my first paid gig in my new career before I graduated.

    I knew that I could do this because I had a job previously in contract security and, during an overnight assignment, read ATH for about 6 hours, non-stop.

    The advantage of internships is that it gets you into the companies so that you can talk to people, learn the lingo and learn their needs, and see, from the inside, what daily life in the career is like.

    The advantage of the medical professions is that you can volunteer and most places would be happy to take you. This is how I started my very first internship – I offered to volunteer at a major local hospital in the department where I wanted to work. Since most departments in hospitals are short-staffed and under-budgeted, they were glad to see me.

    Of course, if the OT person in this post is looking for work at private clinics, it may be a little tougher, but I would think he could offer to come in a DO THE JOB (like Nick recommends) for a while to show, literally “hands on,” what he can do.

    And, of course, there may be more obstacles due to licensing and HIPAA and actually touching patients if you are not a paid employee – but a way around that may be for our friend the new OT to make some demo videos. He could show, for example, “If a patient has a dislocated [something], this is how I manipulate to to help bring back strength and range of motion.”

    Hey! That could be how our OT friend could get his start! Since he’s already been in the entertainment business, he’s used to performing. He could start a series of videos about various OT techniques. Those would become a much more effective cover letter and resume than anything written on paper. He could then use the videos as a way to meet others in the industry: “Hi. I’m doing a series of OT videos. Would you like to take a look at them and advise me on how to improve them?” and… “Would you be willing to be interviewed for my series of OT videos, and maybe demonstrate some procedures?” and… “Would you be willing to be interviewed for my series of OT videos and talk about how you got your start and offer some advice to people who want to work in OT?”

    Now, he’s not asking people for a job. He’s demonstrating his commitment to improving the OT profession.

    Just an idea to help you get around the gatekeepers.

    Send me the link to your youtube channel once it’s up an running!

    michael
    dot
    enquist
    at
    gmail
    dot
    com

    • @Michael: What a great bunch of tips for hacking one’s way into OT. I love the idea of making videos and asking for comments and advice. That gets around the problem of publishing them and taking the risk of someone saying the new OT isn’t expert enough to produce such videos… “I’d like your advice…”

      Next thing those critics know, they’re interviewing our OT friend…

      BTW, if you read ATH non-stop for 6 hours through the night, I think that’s a record. You da man! :-)

  3. All your advice is excellent and the old-school common sense. How I WISH for those old days. However the above doesn’t work well with small cities and towns but I repeat myself. The theory is that one will find the watering hole of someone who has the power to hire you. This is difficult with orgs that have become clogged with bureaucracy.

    Unfortunately, we can’t all afford to move to the big city. This fact doesn’t make your advice less valuable. My point is that the musical chair game is shrinking due to the offshoring, out-sourcing of America.

    Check out:
    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-new-look-at-the-h-1b-visa-programs-impact-on-american-workers-1489483811

    read the comments…

    NONE of this is by accident or partisan. It’s not Trump or Obama. EVERY administration follows their marching orders. America has declined decade by decade and is going in the direction of Mexico City where the elites live behind their gated communities and the rest are the crabs in the boiling pot.

    So yes–one can try to get a job and make a good career in their life. But the goalposts are being moved and the rules being changed for the game you are playing today.

    • @Landor: I don’t disagree with you. But the solution, I think, is to hack those organizations, especially the ones in small towns that are clogged with bureaucracy. That’s the challenge, and it can be done. It’s not at all easy — but what’s to recommend the alternative? Sitting and waiting for that same bureaucracy to pluck your keywords from some algorithmic slime and squeeze you into some job that pays you less to accept a “perfect fit” job doing the same thing you’ve done for 5 years? HR gets kudos for that. But it’s starting to blow up. Economists at the Fed are starting to realize that such nonsense kills the economy and triggers inflation.

      I like your moving goalposts analogy. The challenge is for people to peel up the entire playing field, sod, dirt and all — and move it under those goal posts. There are more people, more job seekers, than employers and bureaucrats. People can tear up the field and move it.

    • I get tired of hearing about H2b visa issues.

      There are less than 100,000 H2b visas. There are over 100,000,000 jobs.

      I have employed H2b workers. The paperwork is daunting, and the wages, in my experience, are not lower than US. In the tech field, I run into folks who are/were great with Fortran or Cobol and manually code html, but have not learned a new language in 10 years. They complain it’s unfair.

      Certainly there are some “unfair” hires – stupid management exists. Age discrimination exists, even though it is illegal. The H2b complaining I have heard all seems to be from old guys, not fresh grads from programming school who have learned yet another language.

      I believe a lot of the Indian tech outsource contracting will self-destruct, as communication challenges mount and the lower cost/hour times man, many more hours needed for success come to the fore. Americans should not worry about them; they are mostly doing grunt work.

      Lewis Carroll wrote: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” Just like the job market. Yet there are quite a few complainers who are just sitting down and kvetching.

      I have three USA friends age 59+ who have found professional jobs in the last year after non-voluntary job terminations. They overcame age discrimination. Two were in fields with substantial immigrant and international work forces. They had extensively networked the last 10 years of their career (at my insistence – thanks Nick!)

      • Are you trying to be facetious, Rick?

        I’m assuming you mean H1-B (skilled workers) instead of H2-B (unskilled laborers). H1-Bs aren’t competing for 100 million jobs. At least 2/3’s of H1-Bs are for “computer-related occupations”. Estimates working that field vary by definition, but 2 to 3.5 million is a typical range. Importing at least 120000 annually into that small a labor market has a non-trivial impact. Estimates are half of IT openings are filled by guest workers, despite ample domestic supply. IT wages have declined since 2000. STEM wages have been flat. The high salaries and demand of Silicon Valley or southern California are in no way representative of most of the rest of the country.

        When I worked at Intel, my building was dubbed “Little India”. Almost half the engineers on my group were guest workers, and that was typical of engineering teams within Intel. They were good workers, but in no way exceptional. The Indian body shops aren’t just doing grunt work, and they are definitely displacing domestic workers, that in many cases were forced to train their replacements. So tech workers are rightfully upset, and correctly see this labor market glutting as “unfair”.

    • There is no doubt guest worker visas (not just H1-B) harms STEM workers. IT has been slaughtered. If anything, the paper understates the damage, because other guest worker visa abuse also increased. Published caps are misleading. The actual number of H1-Bs for private sector is 65000 + 25000 advanced degree + unlimited for non-profit and research. The actual number of H1-Bs issued in 2016 is 180,057, up from 135,530 issued in 2012. Counting renewals of existing visas, as of 2016 the number of valid H1-Bs outstanding was just over 500000. (From state department statistics.) Plus abuse is occurring for other visas such as J-1, F-1, L-1, the latter two uncapped. So easily at least 200000 skilled guest workers are imported each year.

  4. This is my cover letter:

    Call me. Let’s talk. A letter can’t cover it, Best time to call is from to .
    My phone # is –.

    Eddie

  5. Great advice as usual, Nick– I’m rooting for the OT to make it happen!

  6. Great advice, as usual, Nick. I am sure there are employers in the OT field in Seattle who would be attracted to a candidate with such an ususual background (maybe something as off base as one who is also an amateur musician) — he just needs to find them. Out of the box employees do best with out of the box employers.

  7. Yes, write Nick’s cover letter, but don’t burn it. Instead, include it’s best points in the real cover letter that you submit with your resume after your meeting with the hiring manager when, as often happens, (s)he tells you that “you need to submit a resume for HR purposes.”

    There may be another reason behind hiring managers often make this request that job seekers need to be ready for, and that is this: the hiring manager may need to justify his hiring decision to his or her boss, who likely won’t call the prospect in for a second interview. Instead, the hiring manager may be asked to produce the candidate’s resume and cover letter for the boss to review.

    Since a resume only covers a candidate’s past experience, it does not speak to the candidate’s knowledge of the target company nor the reasons why he or she wants to work there. Submitting a properly designed cover letter can speak to these questions and help show that this candidate is a superior fit for the job.

    • @Tim: As I said before, I’ve got no problem with giving a resume and/or cover letter to an employer, after substantive discussion has occurred.

  8. When I was hiring, I might have skimmed cover letters, but none of them did the candidate any good – and some came across as obnoxious. So I’m with Nick about this.

    I’m glad Nick mentioned conferences as a good way of meeting hiring managers. Here are three tips if someone is uncomfortable striking up a conversation. First, when lunchtime comes, try to sit at the same table as your target. That’s a great way of striking up a conversation. Second, think about hanging out in the bar evenings. You might make some great new contacts and pick up lots of hints. My daughter did this when she was a post-doc, and wound up with a tenure track professorship at a top university.
    Third, if the person you want to meet is giving a talk or serving on a panel, listen and come up to talk after the session. Not many do.
    That’s also a good way for hiring managers to find new talent by the way.

    • @Scott: Great tips that all come under the heading, “People love it when we express interest in them in a setting where nothing is expected in return.”

      People love talking about their work. All you have to do is be friendly and ask.

      Here’s the catch: You must not ask about a job. Make friends first. Ask way later on.

  9. Hey OT guy-
    use the people in your training program, especially including the PMR docs doing teaching! Go to their office hours, or buttonhole them at the hospital, tell them what you’re interested in, and ask them who they know at some of those centers! You already HAVE a close connection with people IN the business, who KNOW YOU and your WORK!! Don’t try to parachute through the skylight- get introduced by someone they know!!

    • I second Peter’s suggestion–make good use of your current contacts. Ask your professors and reach out to the people working in the places you’ve interned. They know your work, your drive, your abilities. They might not be working where you want to work, but this is where the 6 degrees of separation and networking comes in. They probably know people who DO work where you want to work, and if they’re willing to make a phone call to recommend you, better still.

      I also like Michael’s suggestion of creating videos as another way to demonstrate your skills. Good luck!

  10. I think cover letter reading is age related. I like to read a good (emphasis on good) cover letter, even if long. Many younger people don’t read long (tl;dr).

    The worst part are cover letters that do not say anything. Any cover letter that can be mail-merged is bad. A cover letter, like a love letter, is supposed to be about the person you are writing to. A cover letter is not just a rehash of the all-too-frequently ineffective resume.

    In short, if your cover letter can be sent to two companies with no changes, burn it and start over. If your letter adds nothing new to the resume, burn it. I would add to Nick’s letter advice, and include WHY you think the trauma center is one of the top ten. Show you did a little research other than Google “Top 10 … in …”

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