Cover Letters–Not Your Life Story

Some job seekers start to write a cover letter and don’t seem to know when to stop–or how to focus, for that matter. If that description fits you, I suggest you think seriously about what it is that you want and need your cover letter to accomplish. If it’s to bore the reader (employer) to tears or motivate him/her to turn the letter into a paper airplane, no problem. Your over-long, poorly focused cover letter will do the trick nicely. On the other hand, if the letter needs to reinforce the strong value message hopefully communicated in your resume, you’ll have to do a lot better than that.

Your Core Cover Letter Message

This is no secret. I’ve written about it before. But you might be surprised at how many people don’t “get” it. You cannot count on the employer reading every wonderful word you’ve crammed into your cover letter, no matter how interesting or important you think all the information is. You will have to decide–sooner rather than later–what the letter needs to achieve and make sure it aims for that. Even your aunt Edna (or whatever your family equivalent is) probably wouldn’t read eight 6-line paragraphs on a page that has half-inch margins all around, even if you’re her favorite relative. It’s a certainty that no employer is going to.

When a banquet speaker starts out by saying something like, “My career began with a discovery in kindergarten that…,” attendees know they’re in for a sleep-inducing evening. However, short of being really rude and walking out in the middle, they’re stuck–they’re a captive audience. The employers you will be targeting in your job search don’t have the same restriction. They can essentially leave whenever they want, by putting your letter and resume in the stack that winds up in or near the wastebasket. Your cover letter needs to do the business-like equivalent of shouting, “I have something to say that will make you successful (competitive, market-leading, and so on)” and then prove it.

Cover Letter Temptations to Resist

For the most part, basic details that are already appropriately presented in the resume don’t need to be restated in the cover letter. As an example, say you’ve noted in your resume that you obtained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Stanford University in 2009. You don’t need a line or two in the cover letter that tells the reader essentially the same thing. He or she also doesn’t want to read a list (even limited) of what your current and most recent jobs were and at what company. Again, the resume should already contain that information and more.

Providing a list of why you left your last four jobs also doesn’t enhance your cover letter. At least, not unless you can turn it to good account on your behalf. If, for instance, those employers were each acquired by another company, you might lightly note that you had accepted positions at companies that you felt showed a lot of promise–so much so that they were bought by other companies interested in growing–and, unfortunately, the typical process of trimming duplicate staff then came into play.

The point? As always, speak to the prospective employer’s enlightened self-interest, but keep it succinct, focused and as loaded with your unique value message as you can reasonably manage.

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