This past week I read a post on Careerealism.com (say that three times fast) titled “Do Recruiters and Hiring Managers Read Cover Letters?”
It’s a valid question because if a particular job fields hundreds of applicants, who has the time to read everyone’s application from start to finish?
“My name is ____________, and I am interested in the position of __________”
Yea, we’ve all started a cover letter like that. It’s a safe bet and lets us start talking about our work experience right away. Problem is, that line is predictable and a complete yawner for an employer staring at a mountain of job applications. The opening few lines to a cover letter are valuable real estate that can hook a reader. When used properly, they can also enhance the letter in general and make you a more desirable hire.
One of the many things I learned as a television reporter in Virginia was keeping a straight face while delivering “breaking news” updates on half an inch of snow. But here’s the most important lesson: don’t just report the news but tell stories. I wasn’t just covering a military deployment. I was covering how people were affected by the deployment. I profiled two parents as they watched their only child go off to war and a wife who expected to give birth while her husband was away. Deployments can be a fairly routine exercise in a military community. That’s why I had to find compelling storylines to make them meaningful, especially for an audience who witnesses the ceremony all the time.
Same goes for your cover letter.
Some of the most effective ones use a work experience/life adventure as a launch point for who you are and why you are different. Your cover letter, like a solid piece of journalism, then becomes distinctive and has a twist. If I may be so bold, I will show you the opening lines to a cover letter I wrote a few years ago for a marketing job at a youth group I joined in high school. I wrote:
It was April 1998, and I had to be the coolest kid in the world. I had just arrived at the Jamestown 4-H Camp for my first youth group convention. But I wasn’t supposed to be there. That spring, I was a timid 8th grader who had just snagged the invite of the century: a chance to sit alongside my older cousin, a revered senior and president of the organization. Man, was I excited…
Set aside, if you will, the fact that I did not land the position. If I recall correctly, I lost out to someone with more experience, but the hiring manager did note that he enjoyed my cover letter and said it was clear that I had a passion for the job.
Do you need to have experience in journalism or creative writing to assemble a winning cover letter? Hardly, although it always helps to have a friend with strong editing skills look over your work once it’s finished (even Hemingway and Fitzgerald had an editor).
You just need to write your cover letter as if you are telling a story to a friend or parent. How would you say it? Tell an anecdote about your current workplace. Think back to an experience that made you want to go into the particular field. Find a way to relate your life to the job in question and give an employer something he or she will remember.
Bottom line: be interesting. Hiring managers expect your cover letter to be a dud because most of them are. A colorful and well-composed letter that starts with a bang will surprise them and make you memorable. Everyone’s cover letter will include work experience, job skills and salary requirements. No one else’s will contain your stories.
So, I repeat: do recruiters and hiring managers read cover letters?
The answer is completely up to you.