A reader dreads having to write a cover letter for an employer, and asks what to do in the October 20, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

cover lettersI hate cover letters. I don’t know how to write a decent one, all the online help I’ve seen is banal garbage, and frankly I’d rather chew on broken glass than go through the agony of trying to think up a bunch of “toot-your-own-horn” baloney to spit out in a cover letter. But in the process of applying for jobs, oftentimes a cover letter is required. Any suggestions?

Nick’s Reply

A sales manager I know forbids his sales team from responding to requests for quotation (RFPs). “If all you’re doing is sending out prices for our products, you have no idea what the customer’s problem is, where it hurts. You can’t win by sending out RFPs and playing How-Low-Can-You-Go?”

Likewise, when applying for a job, you can’t win by sending out resumes and cover letters, then expect the employer to figure out whether to interview you or some of the other 2,000 applicants.

What’s better than a cover letter?

Once you hand over your resume or cover letter, you are out of the picture. You cannot defend your cover letter while HR and the hiring manager read it. You cannot assess what the manager really wants and needs — the job description is not enough. When you submit your cover letter, what you’re saying to that employer is, “Here. Read this. Then figure out what to do with me.” Employers stink at that!

Avoid confusing the employer with your entire kitchen sink of credentials and experiences even if they ask for it! To get in the door, you must offer just the two or three skills (from your huge arsenal) that will address the manager’s specific problems — “where it hurts.”

It’s an offer that no other job candidate will make.

Make this offer

Don’t spend hours “crafting” a cover letter based on guesses about what might impress the employer. Instead, offer 10 minutes of your time. Ask the manager to tell you “where it hurts.” Then deliver — yes, on the fly — three ways you can make it better.

“As a rule, I do not submit cover letters because they are a one-way recitation about me. To help you, I need to know a bit more than what’s in the job description — about the problems and challenges you need your new hire to tackle. I’d be happy to invest in a 10-minute call to discuss this. Based on a preliminary study of your business, and on what you tell me during our call, I believe there may be at least three things I can bring to the job that would materially affect the success of your operation. If I can’t demonstrate that during our brief talk, then you should of course not hire me, or even do a full interview. Would you like to schedule 10 minutes to roll up our sleeves and talk shop?”

Is this risky? I think it’s riskier to pretend a cover letter will get you in the door. Think about the best way to communicate this offer. Put it into words you are comfortable with.

You can deliver the above offer in an e-mail but it’s better via a phone call. You can also do this via a third party. Someone the employer trusts can suggest that the manager have this brief discussion with you — one of its employees, consultants, customers, vendors or other friend of the company.

Weed out tire-kickers

By the way, those “three things” you could do? Describe very briefly, but provide no details. If they press you, invoke the 10 minute limit you both agreed to. “I have another commitment so I have to run, but I’d be happy to flesh out the details with you in a proper job interview. When is good for you?”

This is a great way to weed out tire-kickers who want applicants to invest time and effort that they won’t invest themselves. Of course, you will have to do a bit of work in advance to pull this off. Suggesting specific ways you can do the job profitably will not be easy. But if this opportunity isn’t worth your time to do that, then this employer and job are not worth the time and guesswork to write a cover letter.

Remember: While they are judging your compliance with their hiring process, you must judge them, too, on how they pick their candidates. Are they ready to roll up their sleeves and talk shop for a few minutes, or are they too busy eating cover-letter and baloney sandwiches?

Do you need a cover letter to apply for a job? Do you know something better? If you don’t use cover letters, how do you get an employer’s attention?

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27 Comments
  1. Hi Nick,

    As a Sales Engineer I would like to clarify that RFI, RFQ and RFP are different requests from a prospective customer.
    RFIs are usually published to establish baseline information to formulate an RFP.
    RFQs are merely a price quotation for a predefined set of goods and /or services. These are normally requested when a business is looking for commodity goods, has a quote from their main vendor and is price shopping or is gathering data for CapEx/OpEx budget purposes. Usually a waste of time as noted by your sales manager anecdote.
    Request For Proposals (RFPs) are not price quotations, companies are asking for a total solution to a set of defined problems. When an RFP is published (“put out on the street”), this is just the beginning of a reiterative process. Once you have read the RFP and determined it’s within the scope of products and services your company offers, ask the RFP team (usually a POC is listed) to tell you “where it hurts”. Some corporations and government entities will only respond to written questions and all responses are published to all qualified bidders. Whether written questions or in meetings (virtual) it’s important to validate and expand the detail on the requirements. Businesses as buyers of goods and services; whether from a vendor or an individual employee; often do not fully scope what they need, understand what they need and even have erroneous or conflicting goals.
    This is where the selling part of interacting with the customer comes into play. Very often acting in an advisory role helps the company come to a more refined problem definition and thus solution, highlights your own capabilities and differentiates you from the competition. Reducing the whole process to a set of qualifying bullet points and a fixed price is a race to the bottom. i.e. Find what the company really needs and sell that, rather than blindly quoting a laundry list.

    • @Matt: Thanks for the excellent lesson on the three Rs. You made me realize I captioned a Request For Quotation as an RFP. My bad! I’m not going to fix it because your comment will stand. This is my “fix.”

      I didn’t want to get into the distinctions, but the manager avoided all 3 Rs. It was his way of pushing his sales reps to get out there and meet their prospects and get to know their customers. I also suspect he was dyslexic and didn’t want to reveal it. He never wrote anything. It was all a lot of lecturing (and verbal abuse).

      But you raise an important distinction between the RFQ and the RFP. I think the best analogy is between the RFQ and the resume, even if a resume does not normally list a “price,” or salary target. A resume is like an RFQ in that it is generic. You can send it to anyone, even if it’s slightly customized. It thus commoditizes the job seeker. It makes the assumption that the employer wants little information. I’ll stop there because the analogy will break down!

      More important, HR has no document analogous to an RFP. It’s certainly not the job description. Nor does HR start an iterative process — not until the interview, and I think very rarely even then. That’s where this analogy seems to suggest HR should reconsider how it solicits job applicants.

      I probably shouldn’t have touched this at all — but it was fun to think about it out loud! Thanks again!

  2. Nick:

    I’m a retired advertising copywriter who for years has volunteered to help returning military organize their resumes, and write hopefully attention-getting cover letters. Several of my (all free) clients have told me that my writing has helped them get jobs, but I’ve told them that I’m nothing more than a beautiful actress’ make-up man; I just highlight what’s already there.

    I’ve always said a cover letter is an advertisement for the applicant, and a good advertisement has a headline that hooks the reader and forces them to read the rest of the copy. That’s why I try to give every cover letter a headline that includes specifics that demand the reader go on. Here are a few:

    “I discovered and corrected a mistake that was costing my bank’s branch in northern New Jersey $10,000 every month.”

    “I guarded inmates in Atlanta, and heroes in Arlington National Cemetery. Perhaps I can provide your security needs.”

    “The helicopter pilots at our base in the Middle East said they felt more confident flying the choppers that I maintained than anyone else.”

    Would YOU read further, wanting to learn more?

    It’s better to have a one-on-one discussion to learn what the employer needs, and describe what you can offer them. But if you have a cover letter with a great headline, you may force them to contact you…and then you can explain why you’re a superior candidate.

    • @Jim: I know some very talented writers that produce resumes and cover letters. I even keynoted a conference of the National Resume Writers’ Association, after they acknowledged that they know I advise against relying on resumes — they wanted to stir some controversy. I made new friends and we had a great time reinventing the job search.

      Everyone should have a good, simple, vanilla resume — even if most of them never get read by humans. Algorithms reduce them to lists of keywords to be matched against keywords in job descriptions. Cover letters, I think, fare even worse under normal circumstances.

      Where your talents pay off, I think, is when the job seeker knows exactly who will read the document and knows the person will actually receive it. I really believe such a document must be produced only after you know “where it hurts,” or you cannot fashion in properly. I think there must be some other substantive contact between the hiring manager and the candidate before a resume or cover letter can have a meaningful impact.

      Having said all that, I also know that good copy (or advertising) can work wonders if it is channeled to the right person in a company. Like a good song, a good cover letter has a great “hook.” On my shelf is a copy of “On the Art of Writing Copy,” by the notorious Herschell Gordon Lewis. You may have a copy yourself. If not, get one — you’ll love it!

      I still contend that in general, even a good cover letter will go to waste because HR has create d a
      digital analog (How’s that for a contradiction in terms?) of hiring — an automated system of fake representation of human qualities that just doesn’t work. If it did, cover letters would be great.

      My guess is you do a lot of psychoanalytic work with clients before you start typing. Many years ago, I offered resume writing as a service. I charged a lot of money because it took 8-12 hours of interviewing the client again and again to get to the bottom of their value. Then I realized it was just too much and I could never charge enough, so I stopped doing it.

      I admire that you do this for free for returning military. I didn’t know what that was really all about until I was invited to do a presentation at Fort Dix for 900 military personnel returning from Iraq after that “war.” Kudos to you.

  3. Hi Nick,
    I believe your take here is spot on direct common sense.
    Sometimes in my employment search I have had a cover letter work to my advantage. My specific position usually involves being recommended for hire by a search committee. Each one has my resume and cover. Sometimes they do not see each other until my interview so the cover letter serves as an introduction, extension and elaboration of my resume to each committee member.
    Also, if I am applying for an out of state job, it allows me to explain that relocation is do-able and that I am serious about the job.
    The point also is that I am writing this cover because I am serious about this particular gig and possibly I may have already have reached out to someone in the hiring process.
    If someone is unable or unwilling to be able to craft (or copy) an effective cover letter, how serious is their preparation or desire for this or any opportunity that becomes apparent?

    ir

    • @Tony: As long as you’re directing your cover letter to specific people and the content is specifically written to address them, it can be helpful. My concern is the routine inclusion of a generic cover letter that’s no more than a product brochure sent by mass mail. Glad yours has worked for you!

  4. I would like to share with everyone a cover letter one of my company’s clients received in April, 2018. The client’s company incurred a setback that needed immediate attention. If left unresolved too long, it would have serious impact on the company’s project. Specific names have been omitted due to privacy issues. The jest is intact and gives illustration of effective cover letters.
    “Fred,
    Jason with Advanced Widgets has suggested I contact you regarding your recent logistics issue. My 15 years experience in dealing with this specific issue affords me insight to rectify this problem speedily and without interfering with your project. I’m available at the following telephone numbers. This week I’m available Thursday or Friday for discussion. After that I won’t be available for two weeks.
    Regards,
    Mr. Solution Man

    My client indicated there was no resume attached to the email. “Fred” immediately called Mr. Solution Man and a meeting was scheduled. Fred stated Mr. Solution Man was for real and within 5 minutes hired him to implement the solution based on the experience factor involved. “Fred” has used this incident as training for his management staff.
    Key takeaways:
    Mr. Solution Man addressed only Fred’s immediate problem. #2 He took control by stating Fred had a limited time to act. This was the urgency factor. #3. There was no need for a resume, which would have relegated Mr. Solution Man to the sea of wannabe’s looking for another job.
    There are times when an effective cover letter can get you to the main hiring person. Effective cover letters should address only the issue of the prospective employer. Cover letters are not effective in entry level positions or those of limited service to a particular company. For positions requiring specialized skills, the properly constructed cover letter is sufficient to get the interview and the resume is added later, if at all.
    My company has over 300 clients and at this particular time, influenced by COVID-19, 35% of these clients have stated a change in how they select new hires and this new methodology will continue into the short-term future. The pandemic is changing many things in the business world and old approaches are giving way to innovative methods and solutions geared to sustainability, increased profits, and adapting to the brave new world. One thing is clear, one size does not fit all situations. It is a time to be creative and truly set oneself apart from the madding crowd.

    • @Tomas: Good example of how this really works. But I don’t think this is an example of a “cover letter,” especially because it was not the “cover” attached to a resume. It seems what got Mr. Solution Man an immediate meeting was (1) he absolutely could solve the problem and (2) referral from a trusted source.

      Factor (1) is perhaps the most misunderstood. When people apply for 10, 20 or 100 jobs online, they cannot possibly portray themselves like Mr. Solution did. They don’t apply because they are absolutely certain they can solve the problem. They apply simply because they can — it’s easy, just submit a resume/letter and fill out an app. It’s like buying a lottery ticket.

      Your example highlights just how important factor (1) is. Thanks.

  5. Nick, in these days when there are a couple of hundred applicants for a role, how does the hiring manager’s time scale to offering up 10 minutes per applicant if all applicants heed your advice?

    Playing the devil’s advocate here:

    If an applicant cannot extend the effort to write a customized cover letter that shows she really read the job description that a hiring manager put together thoughtfully and how her background is relevant to addressing the hiring manager’s pain, why should a hiring manager take 10 minutes to explain verbally what was already stated in the job description? If the JD does not cover the pain point, the manager is going to get unqualified candidates, whether with or without a cover letter requirements.

    • Most JDs are shamelessly cribbed and provide little to no insight into “pain points;” they blather on about wanting “team players” (an aside: why does no one seem to value independent workers/thinkers??) who “think outside the box” and can “hit the ground running,” “multitask” in a “fast-paced environment,” are good at “time management” but also “flexible” enough to adapt to projects that get dumped last-minute, etc, etc.

      To flip your script, if a hiring manager cannot extend the effort to write a customized job description that shows he understands what the hell he’s really looking for and how the “requirements” are relevant to his “pain” and not merely “nice to haves,” why should an applicant take a good hour or more to craft a customized cover letter addressing vague, generic job “requirements”?

    • @Clara: Good question, but the answer is so simple that it eludes job seekers because they’re so brainwashed by the employment system.

      Askeladd is absolutely right: It’s very unlikely that the JD provides enough details about “where it hurts” that you could write a specific-enough letter to impress anyone.

      More to the point about your question: “…when there are a couple of hundred applicants for a role, how does the hiring manager’s time scale to offering up 10 minutes per applicant if all applicants heed your advice?”

      The problem is that the hiring manager starts by soliciting hundreds of applicants. That’s irresponsible. If you’re thirsty for a glass of water, you don’t put a fire hose in your mouth and turn on the hydrant.

      When an employer opens the flood gates and invites anyone on LinkedIn or Indeed to apply, the manager will drown in irrelevant applicants. To complain the manager doesn’t have the time is to ignore the source of the problem: thoughtless recruiting.

      The manager needs to go where the small handful of people who can do the job hang out, and recruit there. And that’s where you should be.

      What’s the lesson here? Don’t pursue jobs where you know a herd of desperate job seekers are rushing the employer. Or, find another door to the manager where you won’t get crushed.

      HR is largely to blame for this problem. When HR contracts with the LinkedIns and Indeeds of the world to “access millions of job seekers instantly,” hiring managers choke and drown on them.

  6. @Clara
    I’ve found over the years that there’s a low risk factor in offering advice…most people don’t take it, even if they asked for it. For example most common is help with resumes. What people mean is they want you to help with (or write) silver bullets. The resume that leaps out of a pile and makes a hiring manager race to the phone or computer and bring you in. Ditto cover letters.

    A few take advice to heart, and work with those who help. So hundreds won’t swamp hiring managers with a proposal for 10 minutes of their time. Nor follow up on their offer.

    Applicant’s and hiring managers generally too locked in a deadly embrace with recruiting and job hunting cultures & rules of the game to break out of that box. It causes night sweats.

    For instance, I’ve known hiring managers who act like they were mugged if someone broke the rulew by contacting them direction..and applicants who’d feel they’d be taken to the parking lot and shot if they tried
    .
    Pick up the phone & attempt a call? leave a message? For example. I sinned after my 1st parting from a company…heard a speaker whose advice was very simple. Pick up the phone and call a hiring manager. My thought & everyone else’s was “in your dreams”. Ironically years later, I retooled myself into a recruiter and started making my living doing just that…cold calling companies.

    This doesn’t mean I disagree with Clara about the worth of a cover letter. I’ve found that the hiring/recruiting world falls into 2 camps. Those who like/love cover letters and those who hate them, distain them & the writer.

    I’m in the former camp. Big believer of them. I broke into the computer industry by writing a stand-out non-conventional letter. Which made its way to a hiring manager with a sense of humor. As a hiring manager I read every one and the good ones influenced my interviewing decision. Many people got hired by me because of their cover letters.

    I always advise people to write them, even if they don’t send them. resumes and covers aren’t just for the hirers. I think they are a necessary job hunting exercise to force one to organize their thoughts, and prepare for and justify having the kind of conversation Nick suggests. If you can’t confidently explain to yourself why you offer value better than others, what makes you think someone else can see it? This is especially true of people who’ve lost their job for the 1st time, and doubly so for let’s call us the senior job hunter who has a wide range of experiences.

    Let’s say you have a “perfect” resume to offer. if perfect, it’s probably sterile when it comes to “you”. You’re not there. It’s Just a bunch of facts. The writer and mostly everyone else creates covers that just regurgitate in text resume content. And justifies dislike of covers. Cover letters are a tool affording a way to show what’s NOT in your resume..e.g. the background story on a successful project you pulled off that you feel maps right into a hiring manager’s business.

    Letters. emails, tweets etc are just written or typed substitutes for conversations. to me that’s what a good cover letter is. It’s an conversational introduction, suggesting further real conversation (s) as Nick suggests. And why that’s a win/win proposal.

    One doesn’t “craft” a good conversation. You don’t craft conversations with your mother (well maybe) You don’t need to chew nails to have a conversation. You have them, in the case of employment preferably talking shop. The best letters I’ve seen are conversational. ditto emails. And Nick’s suggested email. That’s a cover. Letter is semantics.

    and the best “job descriptions” are conversational. Details are on websites. Why an applicant should take a look at it & the posting company is an opening conversation. Post that kind of information. Why would you want to work for us. Go here for details.

    These days, more than likely your “cover” will be digital. And there’s an advantage to that..via your tag or subject. Catch someone’s eye with something catchy. Connected with your proposal. And don’t attach a resume. If you want to talk, say so. again and why that’s a good idea. An attached resume just says “Hey, I’m just like all the other traffic you see.

    Let me give an example. My son lost his job. He’s also into competitive sports and related to
    that organizes competitions. There’s an app for that, that has poor street cred due to issues.
    He put together a short email, noting there’s an ideal synergy of helping develop and support an application he uses. Subject: I’d like to eat my own dogfood’ Read quickly with reply that “I had to read this one.” It went right away into conversations…but not a job. COVID has derailed events for now.

    I hate to wear out an old job hunting saw..but it’s true. You’re in sales, sales is competitive, sales is about differentiation, and it’s about gaining access to decision makers…and a good cover that gets attention can get you access before a resume even enters the picture.

    • @Don: I love it when you disagree with me, because you always demonstrate a valid point. Cover letters can work wonders if used as intended, but not if used thoughtlessly.

      “I think they are a necessary job hunting exercise to force one to organize their thoughts, and prepare for and justify having the kind of conversation Nick suggests. If you can’t confidently explain to yourself why you offer value better than others, what makes you think someone else can see it?”

      This is a key point. It’s why a person should write their own cover letter. You must figure out your own value.

      And here’s my message: It’s fine to hire a “professional” to write your resume or cover letter, but you’ll look long and hard to find one that will interview you deeply enough to truly understand you, your experience, the employer, the specific job, and then map your ability to solve the problem to the employer’s needs.

      Most “crafted” resumes and cover letters produced by paid writers are crap. Oh, they’re “well written” and use clever buzzwords and look awfully nice. But if, as Don points out, they don’t instantly illuminate exactly how you’re going to help this manager with this problem, then you’re wasting your time and money. Good writing does not = The Best Solution.

      The best “professionals” that can help you with this writing will spend more time interviewing you in depth than they will spend actually writing.

  7. Nick, I sure have a suggestion, since I’m writing these so often lately. It’s not as great an opportunity to promote (by itself), but might just impress a recruiter and/or hiring manager in a simple but right way.

    Keep the reader in mind whenever you write something like this. You only have a few seconds in which to grab and hold the reader’s attention. If your letter looks or reads like your resume, and almost as long, they’ll just ignore it.

    I suggest a short and sweet clever pitch, no more than one or two sentences. Then work in a sentence that includes the company’s formal name, and the name of the position you’re pitching. End it with an invitation and request to discuss the position and/or requirements further.

    But most important of all, physically format this as a formal paper letter (remember those?). Spell the company’s name properly, and use their physical address. If you can’t get a handle on that, use their corporate headquarters address. Don’t worry about which physical location that is, you won’t be mailing this. And don’t address it to any particular department or person’s name, unless if you are submitting this directly to a particular person (rather than an ATS submission).

    Include your signature (if you’re comfortable with that), and PDF it into ONE file (separate from your resume or other supporting documents). If you have preprinted or engraved personal stationery, go for it (as long as it scans well)!

    And don’t be discouraged if the process you need to use to send this to the employer, requires you to type or paste plain text in a box, rather than attaching a PDF file. Just copy the letter you just wrote and paste it, ignoring the graphic signature, and just format it simple left-justified, and send it.

    I’ve gotten some good results with these, and so far all of my call-backs were from submissions that included one of these short letters. As a professional writer, and consultant who has written countless reports, manuscripts, AND RFIs, RFQs, and RFPs, as well as responses to RFIs, RFQs, and RFPs (really!), I can assure you that first impressions are the most lasting. Impressing upon a potential employer that you are literate and understand the basics of business etiquette and business communications, could be a critical first step. THEN the employer might give you a longer opportunity to deliver the real pitch. Good luck!

  8. Here’s one more reason to craft a cover letter. Since most resumes don’t show how the writer will solve problems, hiring managers reading a pile of resumes tend to fall into a rhythm of “cover letter, resume, garbage, cover letter, resume, garbage”, and repeat. A well designed cover letter can break that rhythm and make a hiring manager say “I need to read this resume with full attention.”

    • @Tim Cunningham: Does anyone even bother to read cover letters (or résumés) any more? I haven’t seen it–both get scanned by a computer program designed to look for key words, and then the computer programs spits them into the garbage file.

      Years ago, when bosses still read such documents, I used the cover letter to go into a little more detail than I could in my résumé, especially since it was beaten into me that résumés shouldn’t be longer than 2 pages.

      • Yes, some employers still read cover letters. The last time I checked the percentages were: 30% read them, 40% skim them and 30% don’t bother. But, as a professional resume writer, I’m not going to miss any possible opportunity to make my clients stand out and a strategically written cover letter can help make that happen.

        Case in point: I once had a client who had applied for a management position and found herself being interviewed as if she was a rock star. This kind of interviewing had not happened to her before so she asked why she was being treated that way. She was told that the employment hiring team had reached out to her as the first interviewee of more than a thousand applicants and one of the reasons for their decision was that her cover letter had a “wow factor.”

        • Wow. Last time I checked percentages, there was no way to check percentages of who does what with cover letters.

          This pitch is not even slightly convincing.

          • One of the Human Resources Management Associations did some surveys of hiring managers with regard to how they dealt with cover letters and I quoted the findings of the most recent survey I saw. If you think the rest of my post was a pitch, I’m sorry, but however unreal it may sound, the incident did happen: my client’s account of the matter can be found on the testimonials page of my website and it’s the reason why I continue to use cover letters to this day.

            • Tim,

              I don’t doubt you’ve had some successes. Congratulations, that’s what makes the effort worthwhile. I think many (or all) of us enjoy describing what we do for a living, and what we do best. So please don’t hold back. And I agree 100% with your suggestions about well-written cover letters and resumes.

              But quoting PR fluff produced by an organization that promotes some of the most unprofessional individuals working in a line of business famous for their incompetence and false claims (i.e. typical “lack of skilled workers” complaints), doesn’t enhance anyone’s credibility.

              This is a diverse group who hangs out here, and most of us have been (or will be) distributed in many levels of management (or not even in management). Not every approach (including the one I recently described) works for everyone. And I’m describing most of us who have NOT been fortunate to have the advantage of a head hunter streamlining and bypassing the processes that make the rest of us crazy.

              Case in point is how we handle getting through initial screening when it is impossible to learn who the hiring manager is, let alone contact them directly. For certain employers where I am sending my submission via email (and not ATS), I knew an idiot was going to be screening everything coming in. I knew the companies (from a few years back) so I knew that a very simple cover letter was appropriate. Pitches are lost on idiots, so I had to just get past the idiot so the hiring manager could be enticed to ask for more.

              ATS’s are similar, since only internal recruiters were seeing them, if the ATS didn’t choke on it and kill the package. Got a few responses from the employers with lesser-broken ATS’s. Again, it was internal HR recruiters responding, and most of those resulted in a discussion with the hiring manager. THEN I could pitch, and get a handle on what the employer was like.

              On the other hand, sometimes it doesn’t work at all. After hours of prep, for a job description I matched 100% (and I had been watching since it also popped up a few years before), CBS’s Brassring ATS turned my resume into gibberish, with no options to correct anything. Brassring would not accept file attachments, and forced the cover letter to be entered as plain text. Complete waste of time.

              However, a book that combines lessons learned with verbal, email, and ATS results of cover letters and resumes submissions, involving legitimate employers and legitimate hiring managers, would be awesome.

        • @Tim: I know you’re in the resume and cover-letter writing biz, but this is not directed at you personally.

          If a job seeker buys a cover letter written by someone else and the employer invites the candidate in for an interview, who is the manager interviewing — the candidate or the person that wrote the document?

          In defense of pros in your biz, a good resume/cover letter experience is also a learning experience for the client. Hopefully, they learn to cast their credentials in better ways. Hopefully the paid writer isn’t just writing, but teaching the client how to understand and communicate their value. (I discussed this with over a hundred members of the National Resume Writers Association when I gave the keynote at their conference. A good resume writer is both a talented manager and interviewer, and a shrink.)

          But I’ve also seen such docs so over-written that the customer finds themselves trying to defend what’s on the doc — and the doc is not truthful. In an effort to “boost” the candidate, the writer makes untrue claims. These come back to bite the candidate in the interview. Yes, the doc “gets you the interview,” but you must be able to defend it when you talk with the manager.

          I base this on a handful of stories from readers. And I go back to the caution I offer again and again. Just as there are a lot of unsavory headhunters out there, there are lots of unsavory resume writers. The cost of entry to either biz is just ridiculously low, so it attracts fast-buck artists. To find the good ones, the consumer needs to check references and talk to other clients.

          A few years ago one of the biggest resume operators was exposed in federal court in a consumer class action suit: https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/7084/federal-court-oks-suit-against-theladders-breach-of-contract-deceptive-practices

          No, not every resume writer is a crook. I know some good ones. Take care to work with the best, even if I think the best resume writer is the job seeker.

          https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/13212/dont-subcontract-job-choices

          • Hi Nick

            Don’t worry I don’t take your comments personally; after having helped dozens of clients recover from badly written resumes, I know there are scoundrels out there masquerading as resume writers. I also agree with you that a good resume writer is a good manager, interviewer and shrink, (to which I would add copywriter). Most important, no certified resume writer should never make unjustified claims for his or her clients. And yes, the best resume writer is ultimately the job seeker.

            But it’s been my experience that a good resume writer will be able to provide value to even the savviest of C-level executives by helping them remember and present highly relevant information that they had previously forgotten. Working with me recovered that information and showed them its relevance – not just for their resumes, but for the more important interviews that followed.

    • @Tim: I agree that a good cover letter can influence a hiring manager. But here’s the problem:

      “hiring managers reading a pile of resumes”

      How often does that happen? I can’t offer stats, but we know that many if not most (I believe most) cover letters never make it past the ATS. If you’re going to put stock in a cover letter, you have to take measures to ensure it gets to the hiring manager. Even then, you’re at a disadvantage against the candidate who gets personally referred or actually talks with the manager.

      The value of a cover letter isn’t just in how well it’s written. It depends at least as much on whether it gets read. Nonetheless, your point is well-taken.

      • Hi Nick:

        I fully agree with you that a client relying on a cold application is at a disadvantage against a referral or someone who reaches out to a hiring manager. That’s one of the many reasons why I counsel ALL my clients to check out your site ASAP and put your advice into practice immediately. Unfortunately, too many clients must apply for jobs before they have built their networks.

        I also agree that we can’t count on a cover letter being read. But since it is still expected, I believe career professionals are foolish not to prepare one that will help clients stand out if it is read.

        On the specific question of organizations using ATS you and your readers might be interested to know the full story of the situation I mentioned because it speaks volumes. The client was applying for a first level Canadian medical management position: in effect she was applying to a provincial government agency (our provinces are the counterpart of your states.) BC government agencies generally use an ATS, and I expected that an ATS would be used here. Yet this cover letter and resume got past the ATS despite the fact that I did NOT use a keyword analysis when I wrote them.

        Why did the resume package pass the ATS?

        I focused the resume on stories illustrating how my client could successfully address the pain points expressed in the job description.

        How do I know that this was the reason the resume worked?

        When the client called me afterwards to thank me, she gave me the full reply to her question of why the interviewers were giving her the rock star treatment. According to my client, they said: “Of more than a thousand applicants, your resume was the only one that addressed the key points we were looking for and your cover letter had a wow factor. That’s why you’re our first interviewee.”

        So I think clients who have solid accomplishments but haven’t networked can still find jobs with a strategically designed and persuasively written cold call resume and cover letter if that’s the best option they have.

  9. I have a few questions here:

    How does one know what a company’s specific problems are?

    How does one track down the specific hiring manager and their contact details without appearing to be stalking said manager? My experience has shown that even if I can get through to a hiring manager, I’m still pawned off to the HR dept. as the initial gatekeeper.

    For the most part, I submit a cover letter about 50% of the time (unless they are required). I have no problem coming up with truthful content about my abilities; shoot, anyone can do that. For this reason, I believe cover letters are a waste of time and have recently stopped submitting them.

    Besides, unless my resume can get past the ATS bots, who will read and actually appreciate my strengths, victories, and career trajectory I’ve taken through the years? Granted, I am not a C-Suite level employee, or in sales, or have numerous high-ranking connections and I doubt I have any kind of reputation one way or another . . .I’m just another cog in a wheel.

    I suspect cover letters are usually just another hoop to jump through.

  10. Steve: I’m puzzled by your reference to PR fluff. I agree that some HR departments can be as unhelpful to a job search as incompetent resume writers, but the only thing I quoted an HR trade association on was the result of a study they did on line manager behaviours. Like all studies it may or may not be accurate and it is a year or two out of date. But it’s the best information on whether cover letters are still read that is available to me at the moment.

    On reflection, I think one other noteworthy point about my experience is that a cover letter that alludes to the pain points outlined in the job ad has a much better chance at getting through ATS scrutiny than one that does not.

  11. Tim, trade associations rarely publish anything that isn’t complimentary and convenient for themselves or their members. Just because they have statistics we can read and understand doesn’t mean it’s the “best.” None of this is “scientific,” traceable, or provable. The associations are free to publish anything they want, embellish, or falsify, and no one’s going to challenge them. In my opinion, the lack of traceability or transparency makes them highly questionable and very inaccurate.

    As for ATS scrutiny, I would like to think that you may be correct, however I have no access to system documentation for any contemporary ATS systems, so I can’t confirm what if anything the ATS is doing with the cover letter content. I’m at least counting on the ATS (other than Brassring) to at least spit out my letter document along with the ATS output (especially if I’ve attached it as a document file).

    And speaking of ATS, what little reliable media publication we have on cover letters, there is practically no credible and useful information published about the nuts and bolts of ATS document processing. Most of the articles I’ve read contradict each other, and following any suggestions for physical formatting have never worked. The only thing I could get working consistently was my name and address. Every single one of them I’ve encountered was broken, ranging from partially to totally. One of them wouldn’t accept my college’s name or my degree area of concentration. One of the last ones dropped out words and sentences randomly, and limited each job to 3000 characters. Another one (the most broken) couldn’t even get my name right, employment history was a lost cause. And all of this was after I had switched to Word format (ATS had access to the full text content).

    With processing errors like those, the resume and cover letter becomes more of a mechanical exercise rather than a creative one.

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