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Test Your Cover Letter Acumen

Test Your Cover Letter Acumen By Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Cover letters continue to be a mystery to many job seekers. Questions such as what type of information to include, how long should the cover letter be and how to grab a recruiter’s attention plague job seekers as they look to make their application stand out.

Below are several commonly asked questions about cover letters and ways to make yours stand out from the pack. Test your cover letter smarts and see if you pass the cover letter quiz.

 

Questions - True or False:

1. Employers are primarily looking for specific job knowledge in your cover letter. If you concentrate more on your transferable skills than your technical ones, you will automatically be relegated to the bottom of the pile.

2. People are the best source of information to tailor your cover letter for a potential employer or job.

3. Sending out hundreds of the same cover letters and resumes is a good use of your time because they reach so many employers simultaneously.

4. The percent of job seekers who find jobs by responding to ads is small versus the number of people who use them.

Answers:

1. Employers are primarily looking for mention of specific job knowledge in your cover letter. If you concentrate more on your transferable skills than your technical ones, you will automatically be relegated to the bottom of the pile.

Answer: False

If you talk to potential employers, read the candidate criteria in the want ads and discuss the necessary qualifications for an opening with an executive recruiter, you will see that, along with technical skills, most companies want professionals with good communication and organizational abilities. Working cooperatively on a team and setting priorities are skills that come naturally to some people, but not everyone. They are intrinsic aptitudes that improve with use. Like other transferable skills such as initiative, creativity, empathy, physical coordination, attention to detail, etc., we are either born with the rudiments of them in place, or we're not.

Fortunately, all of us have some valuable functional skills to market along with our technical knowledge. And, as we progress from hands-on tasks to management, these skills become increasingly important, until they eventually overshadow technical expertise as critical indicators of ability to perform the job. Have you noticed how a number of corporate boards have chosen CEO's from other industries to bring fresh ideas to their companies? In selecting these individuals, the board members are more interested in the candidate's personality and track record for getting the job done than his specific background in potato chips or high-tech widgets.

Do not assume that technical knowledge alone will be the deciding factor in whether or not you are chosen for an opening. Be sure to sell your transferable skills in your cover letters and resumes just as vigorously as your specialized ones because a combination of both is usually expected in a winning candidate.

2. The best source of information to tailor your cover letter to a potential employer or job is people. 

Answer: True

Going to the internet or library to get information about industries and companies is a worthwhile, but arms-length activity. When you want to find out the real scoop on what is happening people will always be your best resource. Humans are social beings who are constantly forming professional alliances, information conduits and personal relationships in their day-to-day living. They are generally eager to share their insights, opinions and facts with anyone who exhibits a genuine interest. Taking advantage of human nature when you are researching the job market will provide you with access to inside information on companies, industries, job openings, personalities and contacts.

3. Sending out hundreds of the same cover letters and resumes to respond to a variety of ads or launch a direct mail campaign is a good use of your time because you reach so many employers simultaneously.

Answer: False

Typically, direct mail campaigns result in a response rate of one to five percent. Consequently, you would have to mail at least 100 targeted cover letters and resumes to get one to five interview invitations.

If you want to achieve the best results in sending unsolicited cover letters to potential employers, you must tailor them to the individual companies you genuinely think need your expertise. You can find these firms by doing some research on the internet or the library to determine the organizations, which have the structures, missions, and jobs that match what you want and have to offer. By both telling employers what you like about them and how your experience may benefit their bottom line, you may be able to secure an interview to further expand upon your credentials in person.

Following up on your initial contact may also substantially increase your chances of getting together with a potential employer. Be sure you always mention in your letter that you will be calling to schedule an appointment. Then do it. Employers like to be pursued by worthwhile candidates.

4. The percent of job seekers who find jobs by responding to ads is quite small versus the number of people who use them. 

Answer: True

Statistics quoting the percentage of job seekers who actually find positions through want ads vary greatly. Eighteen to twenty percent is on the high end of the estimates. One to four percent probably represents a more accurate figure. If you decide to use ads as part of your job search, keep these numbers in mind.

Also, recognize that one of the reasons these statistics are dismal is that job seekers tend to send the same resume and often the same cover letter to every ad they answer. When employers receive 100-200 or more responses to an ad, they can afford to be very finicky about whom they choose to interview. If they average 30-60 seconds in their initial scan of a cover letter, it had better grab their attention, or they will never even read the resume.

To put punch into your cover letter you should make certain that it addresses the most important requirements listed in the ad and gives a unique reason why you are interested in the company. Beginning your letter with, "This letter is in response to your ad in the Morning News dated November 3," and going on to say that, "I know my qualifications are a good match for the position," hardly starts an employer's hiring juices flowing. In the battle to be chosen for the interview stack, you must tailor your resume to be noticed.

 

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Taunee Besson, CMF, CareerCast.com Senior Columnist

Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

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