Why the #&$% do I need a cover letter?

If you have ever read one of the job ads I've posted, you would have seen my request for a cover letter. After reading some of the responses to that request, I'm sure the initial thought might have been, “Why the #&$% do I need a cover letter?”

There's no doubt I have read a bucket load of cover letters. Those that I have read which are poor far outweigh those that are good. It's like comparing the sheer size of Jupiter to the Forest Moon of Endor; small and non-existent. Many of you, I am sure, wonder why you should bother at all. I tend to agree if the purpose of your cover letter is to be general and vague. Believe it or not, there have been times when I have called a candidate on the strength of their cover letter, alone.

So, what makes one cover letter stand out over another in my opinion?

Before I get to that, I want to share an experience in my career that has led to my opinion and writing this blog post. Before establishing my recruitment business, I worked in IT as a BDM for over a decade. In that time, I worked on countless proposals for my customers. It was always a collaborative process. My job was to get the frame of the document and the requirements clear. I would engage experts to provide the technical content of our solution. I would speak to relevant internal teams and third parties around our commercial model. Once I had all the information I needed, there was only one thing left to do. I needed to write my executive summary.

I read a great book many years ago called Persuasive Business Proposals – Writing to Win More Customers, Clients, and Contracts by Tom Sant. On page 138, the chapter headed Executive Summary, the first line sets the theme of that chapter; The executive summary is the single most important part of your proposal. This line and the entire chapter changed how I wrote proposals forever. It resulted in me progressing to more shortlists and winning more deals. I even had a customer once ask me to write an executive summary to explain a proposal I hadn't even written.

The very premise of an executive summary in a business proposal got me thinking how similar one is, or should be, to a cover letter. If you are selling yourself to an employer, should you treat your resume as a business proposal? If so, why are you not introducing your solution (you) to the hiring manager's problem with an effective executive summary? Tom goes on to say; the executive summary is the only part that’s likely to be read by everybody involved in making the decision. In fact, it’s the only part of your proposal that some decision makers will read at all. Now, I know in a recruitment process that’s unlikely to happen. Your resume will get read at some point, but there are some significant parallels to draw here.

If a stakeholder can progress a proposal based on an executive summary, your cover letter can make a big impact too.

I remember the old way I used to write a proposal and the way my customer would read them. I’d articulate my understanding of the problem and the outcome they were aiming to achieve. I’d relate their situation to the broader market. Our solution would then follow and the technical justification to support my claim. All important stuff. There would be pages and pages of diagrams, tables, jargon and blah blah blah. They'd read page after page until they found one of the most important things they were looking for to see if the discussion was worth continuing. The price. It was one of the most critical pieces of the puzzle, and yet I had it hidden in the shadows of my document. It’s no wonder people read my proposals like a Herald Sun reading sports enthusiast, from back to front.

The first time I put my pricing in the executive summary was a real test of nerves. I was shitting myself. “What if they reject us before even looking at our solution?” However, that didn’t happen. The most important information was at the front. Our understanding of the problem, the key themes of our solution to address it and the price. The rest of the business proposal became the supporting documentation. What I found was it gave us more air time with our customer than we had before. It demonstrated a level of confidence in our solution. I found that more customers wanted to get me in to discuss the detail of the solution.

A cover letter that addresses your customer, in the same way, will show the same confidence. It will demonstrate that you understand the role and why, in short, you are the right person for the job.

An executive summary always exists as a part of the business proposal document. You want to make sure it’s the first thing your customer reads. I think cover letters should be the same. Not a separate document, but the first page of your resume. If you have two documents, your cover letter is less likely to be read after the resume has been opened first.

Usually, recruiters will only attach one document with a candidate in their databases. For future roles, it's beneficial to have everything in the same document. A cover letter in the resume will offer another page of content to where keywords can be found.  

Over my time, I have read countless cover letters that read like the narrative of a novel. Usually, they are one or two pages, densely populated with words. At first glance, they seem like a fair investment of time to read. However, for a cover letter, such a style doesn’t address the time-poor nature of your reader.

Make your cover letter one page, the first thing someone sees. Be specific. Use dot points and have them well spaced (one and a half spaces works well for me) so they are easy to read. When you find a job advertisement you want to apply for, focus on the requirements section. Ask yourself, “what are the three critical things I think these guys are looking for?” Those lines will be explicit in the skill or experience they're after. This is what you should prioritise and address in your cover letter. Don’t bother with the general requirements as you’ll only respond with general statements. These are the requirements like 'excellent communication skills' or 'works well in a team.' These things you can demonstrate in an interview. A good cover letter cuts specific words or phrases out of the advertisement. They do this, so it couldn’t be any clearer what they are trying to address. It’s a risk leaving it to chance that your audience will be able to interpret your resume in the way you want. This is where you should help them out. Point directly to the experience or skill. Say, “there, that’s where I did it!” And point to it from your cover letter.

Being able to highlight what you think is important will help a recruiter find what they are looking for. However, if anything, it will help you qualify if, in fact, you are right for the job.

The role of a recruitment consultant is not easy. Many of us are working on ten, twenty, even more positions at a given time. If you consider putting forward three or four candidates per role, that's a lot to manage. We coordinate client briefings, write advertisements and drive proactive campaigns. We accept applications, conduct phone screenings and send out rejection emails. We organise interviews, build shortlists, lock in candidates to meet with clients. We help with salary negotiations, references and sending out offers. And all the time, keep our bosses off our backs maintaining weekly KPI’s. It ain’t easy, and we’re often left feeling like a panting sheepdog at the end of each day. We receive hundreds of applications per role. With limited minutes in the day, the trick, as a recruiter, is to find what you need as quickly as possible. You want to find what you need, pick up the phone and progress the candidate to the next stage. It’s like a game of Crash Bandicoot; every requirement you meet grants you another few seconds of reading time. However, offer a passage of boring fluff, and you go backwards. And if you do make it to the end of the level, that's when you get the call from a recruiter. They are ringing to have an in-depth discussion with you about your application.

There is no doubt that applying for a job through an advertisement is one of the hardest things to do. How do you stand out through words on a page? With so many lousy cover letters out there, I believe this is where you can answer that question. In the process, you will save the recruiter time trying to find what they’re looking for in your resume.

If you think of it like this: the executive summary, your cover letter, is the map to the island of your resume. Be bold and tell a hiring manager exactly where to find what they are looking for. Tell them why you are right for the job, and maybe, you’ll be that next candidate who stands out from the crowd.