In the November 6, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a hiring manager bemoans how people spam him with applications:

I’m a manager for whom hiring does not come easily. I’m selective. If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered. I know people want and need jobs, but why do they expect to get hired just because they submitted “their information?”

Sometimes I’m also a job hunter. I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn. That’s what it takes to get hired.

Why do people have such a hard time understanding these simple points?

Nick’s Reply

There are two big misconceptions that lead people astray very quickly when job hunting. The first is that because they want a job, they’re worthy of being hired for any job they apply for.

The second is that applying for jobs gives them an honest chance those jobs. But reality tells us neither idea is true. What you say is absolutely crucial for every job hunter to think about.

  • I want to work at the companies I apply to, and I tell them why in a customized cover letter. I detail how my strengths match their needs, and I’m honest about what I still need to learn.

I’ll ask anyone reading this: Can you say this about the way you approach an employer? As a headhunter, I’ll tell you that it’s a rare person who takes this approach. And the failure to approach only companies you really want work for is fatal. There aren’t 400 jobs out there for you, so why do you apply for them all?

  • If you’re just “looking for a job” and spamming your resumes to all job postings, then it’s no wonder that employers don’t spend any energy following up on your “interest,” since it can be pretty obvious you didn’t spend much energy asking to be considered.

I love it when I get a letter or e-mail from someone who tells me they “want to express their interest” in this or that job, or in “working with me.” It’s nonsense, because there is no further indication or proof that they know anything about me or my business. When they apply for a job, all they know is that they saw an ad. Period. And they sent in “their information.” That is why most applications die on the vine.

What’s the necessary approach? You gave it to us. Go after companies you really want to work for. Demonstrate your interest. Prove you have abilities that are relevant to the employer and job. Anything else is sloppy and obviously gratuitous (or desperate). Yet the employment system encourages gratuitous and desperate applications, so we can say that employers get what they ask for.

But they don’t hire that way. It’s up to the job hunter to do it right, even when the employer tells you to do it the wrong way.

Do you just zing out your resumes and applications to every job you find that looks “of interest?” Or do you carefully target and demonstrate your worth to each employer? I think most people succumb to the quick-and-easy spam-a-lot approach to applying for jobs — because it’s what employers ask for. What do you do to educate the employer — and prove you’re worth hiring?

This blog posting is brought to you in spite of Hurricane Sandy. Ask The Headhunter HQ is still without power, 7 days and counting, with no thanks to the inept disaster management planning of Jersey Central Power & Light. Many thanks to American Power Conversion for keeping the joint running.

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  1. I was recently told by a career coach that cover letters are out of fashion. HR only concentrates on the resume and could not be bothered about printing out cover letters any more especially with robots crawling around looking for keywords.

  2. Hi Nick:

    I’m a public sector employee and have been follower of your wisdom for many years. I agree with this hiring manager who seems enlightened. You don’t have to convince me. However, some hiring managers are very entrenched in these archaic ways. They will not talk to you for any reason at all unless you formally applied with resume or online and then berate you for not following instructions. If you did apply then you’re told call us we’ll call you. For me, I take it as sign of the work culture and run as fast as I can.

  3. Some time back, I read an article titled ‘How NOT to get a job in IT’. One sentence stuck with me: Sending in a resume and sitting back waiting for the phone to ring is a great way to avoid employment.

    Cover letters are a lot like thank you/follow up letters. We don’t know who will or will not pay any attention to them. But job seekers should send them anyway because it is unlikely to hurt their cause. The worst that can happen is they have no effect.

  4. @Trevor: You’ve got that only half right. Cover letters are a waste of time because resumes are “read” by software, not humans. The other half is that HR actually pays for the onslaught of resumes it has no time to really read. And then they complain about “the talent shortage.” Guess where talent is really lacking in this equation?

  5. @NY Teacher: You’ve learned the lesson. Managers that behave that way are not worth talking to, much less working for.

    @Chris: I agree with your point about cover letters, but I think it’s also a choice about resource allocation. Time spent doing a good cover letter could also be spent calling contacts to get an intro to a manager. It’s a choice.

  6. TO ALL: Sorry I’ve been so absent from the discussions. We’re 8 days out of power. Frost on the grass this morning. Very cold indoors. I’m working from time to time on a borrowed power line. Will catch up in more detail when power is back up. We’re expecting a nor’easter tomorrow, which could make matters worse. Our power company, Jersey Central Power & Light, seems to operate like the whole company is one big HR department — they get nothing done because planning at the top is non-existent.

  7. Nick –
    Thanks so much for taking time to do what you do in spite of being without power! If more employees did only work that they loved and followed your example, I suspect our resession would be over with rather quickly, even in the face of government bumbling and interference.

    I’d also like to ring in on the discussion about the effectiveness of demonstration your abilities in an interview: it works. If I have relied on my resume for the last 3 jobs I had I would not have gotten them. I had neither the experience nor the education so my resume definitely hid my ability.

    This works so well that in the first job I’m talking about I was the only person on staff without a degree or experience. The second job was created for me after I had already been hired at a lower level. The third company I’m talking about hired me with out going through the traditional four tier interview, and again I did not have the background or the education. In any case what I did have was the skill to do the job and to prove it in an interview as well as a good dose of passion.

    Say what you would like about the effectiveness of resumes and cover letters and throwing your information all over the landscape. You know what I’m counting on? That there are multiplied thousands of people who do just that while people like me quietly go in the back door and take their jobs.

  8. My challenge: Send me a cover letter that is composed specifically for me to read, and I promise I’ll read it. If you are able to change the address line and send it to another 100 companies, then it will be obvious and I’ll get bored reading reading your cliches.

    Speaking of cliches. Please don’t use them. Just imagine that I have read a thousand cover letters before yours wherein the applicant was a, “results oriented, self-motivated, team player”

    ~Headhunter for the Construction Trades

  9. @John Krytus: It’s a great challenge to convince the job seekers I teach to stop simply giving opinions about themselves (“results oriented, self-motivated, team player”)and get to what actually have done and can do.

    Also they need to stop the ‘responsible for’ thing. I know your were responsible for things, but did you do those things? Replace ‘Responsible for meeting department revenue targets’ with ‘Exceeded department revenue targets four of five years’.

  10. So here’s my question for the group: which would you rather do? A) read a well crafted cover letter which is essentially just a marketing piece about why we should talk in person OR B) participate in an action oriented meeting where the first piece of paper the candidate hands you is a project plan with specific milestones which details how the work will be done and why it will be profitable?

  11. Nick, appears that I’ve been going about my job search in the most futile way. After reading this message I have a better idea of what approach is needed. Thank you!

  12. @Thomas Lafferty,
    Sure, I’ll go for B. Except if this is the first time someone has ever talked to you, how did they come up with a well-crafted plan, without your aid? So I’d like to suggest you go out and talk to a networking group, so you can make yourself known. Then you’ll be able to pick who you want to help so they can prepare the plan.

  13. It’s not an either-or thing. You need the buzz words to get your resumes through HR, you need a good cover letter, and good resume, to get it past me, and sometimes you need a good action plan when you get your foot in the door. I say sometimes because our problems are unique, and if someone came with an action plan for them I’d start looking for a security leak.
    But personal connections will get you past HR and will be better than the cover letter.
    And I agree with @Chris Walker. Your goal might be to grow in your profession, but my goal is to have you contribute to the bottom line. Save the “me” stuff for the career planning sessions. I’m selfish. It’s about me, not you, in this context.

  14. @Thomas L: Your 3 stories say it all. Thanks for posting them.

    @John K: I wish everyone who reads your comments would just believe you, rather than just keep cranking out copies of their cover letters for every employer, filled with the same phrases. We’ve seen them all!

    @Chris W: I never looked at it that way. Job hunters need to stop expressing opinions about themselves! That’s the problem. Who wants an opinion from the applicant about the applicant? Show me the money!!

  15. @Thomas L: I’ll go for Russian authors for $50, Tom… I mean… are you kidding?? ;-) I poll managers all the time with a similar choice, but ask them if someone called and offered to show how they’d fix problem A or do task B, what would they do? Down to a person, INVITE THEM IN!

  16. @Ronald: Welcome to our little club. Like Thomas says, the more people that keep applying for jobs the goofy way, the less competition for those who do it our way… :-)

  17. BTW, the power’s back on. 8 days. And tomorrow a nor’easter is due with snow. Enjoying 68 degrees and running water while I can…

  18. Good comments all. Personally as a manager I loved cover letters and now a days, cover emails. Don’t forget the content of an email if that’s your delivery vehicle. I work for an engineering company, where they respect the anal….yet it’s not uncommon to get a resume from someone espousing that “attention to detail” is one of their flags to fly, attached to some email laced with typos, & grammatical errors. Those people are DOA.
    Why are cover letters of interest? I think they add something (if as the author noted the applicant wants to work for the company..which means the dots connect in the letter to the company). I think there’s quandary afoot in resumes…let’s say that somehow a perfect format could be defined. A very good resume, with one exception, is a sterile compilation of facts. Most of it says nothing about “you” The exception is a good leading summary. your one shot at succinctly restoring the humanity (“you”) back in there. I am interested in who are YOU? what drives you, what sets you apart from other contenders, and what will you bring to the table, ie. your value-add. Your value add is implied by experience etc, but explicit beats implicit. Go ahead, come right out and tell me.
    And that’s what a cover letter is for. tell me your value adds, passions, business interests and if you’ve done some homework (research, networking) connect those dots to my company and the particular opportunity on the table. If you love the company and don’t see a particular job, your research should tell you what you think you can do for us…then tell me that…define your job.
    I always advise job hunters to write a cover letter, just a general one for starters. I don’t consider it a waste of time, because what I see is a lot of lack of focus, which come to you as those platitudes. Focus is the secret of job hunting success. Experienced people are good generalists, they have done, and can do a lot of things. They are diverse. And you can read a lot of material about the value of generalists…which I personally endorse. and the diverse job hunter rightly proud of this stuffs that diversity in their resumes and cover letters frequently with summary titles listing 5-6 areas of expertise. But sorry while industry applauds generalists, it hires specialists. If you talk to a QA manager about a QA role, what he/she wants to hear is the 1st thing you start thinking of when you wake up, is the exciting world of QA, and the last thing on your mind before you fall asleep is QA. I’m not excited about your versatility, I’m probably offended…you’ve just told me you really don’t love me.
    So capture “You” and your value add in a good 1 page cover letter.
    Now take that and boil it down to a paragraph. That’s your resume summary, and your email cover.
    From my experience, which includes my job hunting self…the hardest thing for a job hunter is to wrestle themselves to the ground and answer this one question. What do I want to do? The tool for finding an answer is a cover letter.
    So even if you don’t read it…it’s added a lot of value to my job search. In order to put it together, it forced me to focus.
    The best advise I got which I thought provided some clarity to the age old question of what’s the right format..was a good resume is one that you can talk to. Not some formula, template driven, full of bullet points you don’t even remember. To me a good resume from an interviewers standpoint is one that I can place in front of me and the applicant walks me through it confidently and comfortably point by point, without having a cc in front of them. If you can do that…you will stand out in a positive way.
    Saying you’re job hunting is too broad. You might as well be trying to boil the Pacific Ocean with a bunsen burner. That’s why as the author pointed out I also tell job hunters to stop chasing jobs and chase companies.
    As to the hallowed hiring manager. that’s also pretty general actually. You’re looking for someone in that company who will take you seriously. Ideally that would be the hiring manager, but it could be that HR person, an internal recruiter, an assistant to the Hiring Manager, etc. Do not assume that if you can “get to ” a hiring manager, you’ve hit the jackpot. I’ve recruited inside companies before, as I now do. They run the gamut from stellar recruiters in their own right, to just God awful. Hell some of these people don’t communicate with their own internal recruiters, HR people, colleagues. That HR person may be foursquare in your camp. From the outside looking in you think they’re hosting you. But on the inside you can see that they simple don’t give recruiting a priority, stink at it, don’t like it, and get off on being work a holics.
    God this is long, sorry. But I’ve time on my hands and you suffer

  19. As a long term unemployed, writing good cover letters got more and more difficult as the days went by. The initial drive and enthusiasm has been ground away by constant rejections and no replies. Job search has gone from searching dedicated companies to industry to anything will do in desperation. Obviously quality of cover letters had gone down the drain too. The rejection hurts more when you put your soul into it.

    There are several great comments in this thread. Thank you. They give me hope and strength to write one more good one.

  20. One more point I can make. Job hunting is hard work. Company focus is valuable because it provides focus for Networking and Research which everyone agrees is essential.
    Being able to clarify to yourself what you love to do and your value add to a targeted company is also essential. Because if you can’t nail it down to yourself, how can to get someone else to believe in you?
    If you can, and you are a “believer” it will come across. Passion and enthusiasm go a long way to overcome interviewing nervousness, resume holes, someone’s idea a resume isn’t properly structured.
    You’re looking for a believer in that targeted company. Hiring manager is in most cases the person you want to believe it you..
    But I’ve heard little about a corporate fact. There’s a formal organization ie. the “org chart” But remember this…there’s an informal organization populated by people who have influence beyond what the org chart seems to suggest ..or they may not ever appear on an org chart.
    It’s not easy, but this is why you’re doing research. to find out things like this.
    Org chart or not, if you can find the right person in the organization who will take up your cause, be an advocate, it may well be worth 10 hiring managers.
    For example. There’s good advise about courtesy to receptionists. That’s good common sense to follow as they may be asked an opinion. That’s one opinion among many. But if that receptionist started with the owner 25 years ago…and he/she gets a bad impression of you. You can pretty much bet that now matter how sharp you are professionally, how well you did on a short list…I can guarantee you’re screwed.
    Large corporations…not on an org chart…but there’s an admin group. cross an admin the wrong way and you’ve crossed 20 others…who sit outside the door of the person you’re trying to get to and his/her peers. An insider can shaft themselves nicely this way. ditto an outsider.
    There’s technical specialists, scientists, individual contributors who are so highly respected they make a difference.
    The opposite is true as well. These people have the latitude, respect, influence to walk in stick your resume under some decision makers nose and simple say “you have to meet this guy/gal”
    HR, Hiring Managers, recruiters are part of the formal org structure. But it’s very useful to apply research to finding out about the informal organization.
    @Trevor. Don’t give up, persist, persist, persist. If you value a cover letter, do a cover letter. You’re just looking for someone in the company who likewise loves cover letters.
    I got my 1st job solely due to an unconventional overly long cover letter, (light and humorous so I thought at the time). My boss-to-be had a great sense of humor & he loved it. I jumped to the head of the line. The only way it could have happened was a cover letter, as I was totally unqualified for the job.

  21. With the economy not getting any better after lo these many years, I’m not sure that the issue is whether there are 400 jobs you really, REALLY want. Rather, while there is nothing available that you are really fired up about doing, there ARE 400 jobs you are vastly over-qualified for, and that will put beans-n-rice on the table until the economy does improve.

    This is where the “talent” that HR can never seem to find has gone. Elsewhere. And into hiding until employers wake up and smell the coffee that the “talent” is pouring for them at the local Starbucks.

    And you know, coffee shop management is better than nothing in whatever you went to college for. Or what you have 25 years experience doing.

  22. @ Nick

    RE: Jersey Central Power & Light

    Do you really want to know how many qualified power-line electricians are out of work while you and the rest of New Jersey and New York were chillin?

  23. @L.T.: Our governor and the president shipped quite a few line crews in from out of state. A friend of mine was chatting with some at a local coffee shop. They were frustrated because JCP&L had not given them work orders. They were waiting – without orders. Idle resources. That’s the problem, which I think is what many companies face: Weak top management that (1) doesn’t know how to hire talent, and (2) doesn’t know what to do with the talent it has. I think many companies that have survived the downturn did so in spite of themselves. Precious few are managing well. Meanwhile, the number of residents in NJ without power 10 days later is in the serious double digits. The crews are driving around, waiting for orders.

  24. I agree that a good cover letter can go a long way.

    However, the issue is that it will only go a long way with the right company/manager.

    Most people I know get mad because they will customize everything for the job and not even hear a peep from the company/person.

  25. @Dave: Good point. It’s kind of like the guy who falls hard for a girl. She doesn’t know he exists. He marshals the courage to introduce himself, but she’s not interested. Welcome to life. :-) It’s a serial process of approach and rejection, and it takes time, and it hurts. But when you “hit,” the payoff is so good that you’ll keep doing it.

    The problem is that people forget you’ve got to do a really good job EACH and EVERY time, or the one time that girl actually likes you, you flub it and lose.