What in a cover letter makes managers cheer or cringe

May 21, 2010 at 10:49 am Leave a comment

Cover letters are kinda the Rodney Dangerfield of the job-hunting toolkit — they just don’t get enough respect. Job seekers obsess over their resumes (with good reason), carefully prepare for interviews and spend a great deal of energy putting together their writing samples or portfolio. And then, often, they dash off a cover letter or hurriedly “repurpose” one they sent out to other employers last week.

Guess what? Hiring managers are on to this. Job seekers who take cover letters lightly do so at their own peril. Usually, this is the very first contact a hiring manager has with a job candidate. So if the cover letter is sloppy, too formal, not formal enough, or a carbon-copy of the one you’re sending out for a bunch of openings, the hiring manager is likely to chuck it and not even get to your carefully prepared resume or clips package. When asked for their top gripes about job candidates today, recruiters cite dashed-off cover letters (see April 12 post, “Little flubs can turn into a big miss in job hunting”) that miss the entire purpose of this letter: which is to indicate to a prospective employer why your skills and experience would make you a good fit for THIS particular position. They are supposed to be custom documents — tailored to the job you’re seeking.

Based on chats with hiring managers and my own recruiting experience, here are some tips on crafting cover letters that are more likely to cause a recruiter to grin rather than to groan when they read yours:

*Pay a great deal of attention to the details. Remember, this is the hiring manager’s introduction to you and your candidacy for this position. If you misspell anything, or have the wrong name (even if you’re off by a letter or two — for instance,  you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been addressed in a cover letter as Jodie or Jody, when a quick Google search shows I’ve always been Jodi) or even a slightly wrong title, many managers will simply toss your package in the recycle bin. This is especially true for journalists — if you can’t get things right in a cover letter, a prospective employer will reason, how well are you likely to handle details when writing or editing a complicated story? It’s competitive out there, and any mistake gives a hiring manager a chance to reduce their stack of applicants. Watch your grammar as well. And keep the cover letter to one page — don’t ramble.

*Direct the cover letter to this job and this organization. Do some research on the company, its goals, history and if possible, how this particular position fits into the company’s landscape. Then specifically indicate how, through your experience and skills, you can deliver what’s needed (see Jan. 20 post, “Cover letter tips for recent grads — and veterans”) for this job. Be careful not to overreach, it’s sometimes difficult even with good research to understand how a position fits into the company’s mission. But show that you’re targeting this company and are interested in this particular job — that will gain a hiring manager’s attention.

*Beware robo-cover letters. Hiring managers are well aware when a candidate has simply filled in the blank with their company’s name — a cover letter that is general and being “tweaked” only slightly for each employer has that robo feel to it. If you’re interested enough in a position to send an employer your material, you should take the necessary time and energy to write them a letter geared toward them. That extra care will pay off.

*Be real — avoid stiff, overly formal cover letters. For some reason, candidates who are conversational and write well otherwise sometimes feel the need to adopt a formal, almost legalistic tone in a cover letter. This is a turnoff for hiring managers; several told me that if a cover letter is written in this style they may not even get to the resume (which, remember, usually comes AFTER the cover letter in how a manager will process your application). Write a letter in a tone that while always professional also is conversational and adheres to your style of writing and speaking (though grammatically correct, of course). Conversely, don’t get overly familiar or cutesy in a cover letter. This is a business document. Write in a way that is direct, conversational and details your qualifications and interest in this job — and you’re more likely to avoid cringes and groans from the hiring manager and instead get those cheers and grins.

*Never mind how crowded a job market it is for recent college grads — high-school students looking for summer work or part-time work in any season face a great deal of competition, especially if they are seeking their first job. Careers journalist Vickie Elmer offers smart tips for those 15-21; if you’ve got a job-seeking teen (or know of one) please pass along this advice (some of which is useful for job hunters of any age!):


*Here’s a variety of leads to wrap up the work week:

*The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association has an opening in D.C. for a manager of strategic communications:

Manager, Strategic Communications
Blue Cross Blue Shield Association – Washington, DC
Communications group, including media and public relations, member advocacy, and executive communications… written and verbal communications skills The… $95,000 – $105,000 a year
From RetiredBrains

*Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates in D.C., a communications firm, has openings for mid and senior-level communications strategists…this could be worth checking out for a transitioning journalist:

Mid/Senior-Level Strategic Communications Professionals
Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates – Washington, DC
and/or crisis communications, political campaigns or on Capitol Hill. Experience in the media, a PR agency, or in a communications capacity at a company…
From RetiredBrains

*A few internship opportunities are still available. One is with KaBOOM! (gotta love their enthusiasm) in D.C., which is seeking a corporate development intern:

Corporate Development Intern (DC)
KaBOOM! – Washington, DC
fund grants and trainings, and develop our web based… also apply). * Excellent verbal and written communications skills. * Comfortable with research such as…
From VentureLoop

*The Wallace Center in Arlington, at Winrock International, a non-profit, has an opening for an intern (with an hourly wage!) for this summer, so get moving if interested:


Effective with the release of this position announcement, Winrock International will be recruiting applicants for an internship with the Wallace Center at Winrock International. The responsibilities, duties and qualifications are described in the attached position description. GENERAL: Winrock International is a nonprofit organization that works with people in the United States and around the world to empower the disadvantaged, increase economic opportunity, and sustain natural resources. Winrock matches innovative approaches in agriculture, natural resources management, clean energy, and leadership development with the unique needs of its partners. By linking local individuals and communities with new ideas and technology, Winrock is increasing long-term productivity, equity, and responsible resource management to benefit the poor and disadvantaged of the world.   The Wallace Center at Winrock International has been a key organization in fostering a more sustainable food and agricultural system in the U.S. since 1983. During this time it has employed research, policy analysis and education in order to drive change that benefits farmers, urban and rural communities, our natural resources and the health of our citizens. Today, the Center continues to provide leadership to further the development of sustainable and equitable agriculture and food systems through national and regional program design and implementation, policy analysis, research and technical assistance.

SALARY: Hourly wage based upon qualifications.   START DATE: June 1, 2010   END DATE: September 1, 2010

APPLICATIONS: Applicants should go to www.winrock.org and submit a current resume and cover letter referencing HRM/Farmers Markets. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until the position is filled. EOE

*Citizens Against Government Waste in D.C., an advocacy group, is looking for a manager of online communications:

  • *The Bill of Rights Institute, a nonprofit educational organization based in Arlington, has an opening for a director of education programs:
  • *And last but certainly not least, the Atlas Project in D.C. has several openings — including a senior position for someone with campaign experience and two more junior-level staffers who are interested in campaigns and have experience in writing or data analysis:

    Atlas Job Descriptions May 2010.docx

    Happy hunting, and have a relaxing weekend! I’ll be back with you Monday morning.



    Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

    Following up: A key to success in a job hunt How to handle an interview q for which you’re unprepared

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