Your Cover Letter: Is It Helping or Hurting?


I recently had the opportunity to help a client with the process of hiring someone to fill a senior-level role in his organization. As part of the process, I reviewed approximately 140 cover letters and resumes. Reviewing such a large number of resumes and cover letters brought further clarity to some ideas that have been kicking around in my brain for a while. If you are in the process of a job search, or know someone who is, hopefully you will find these thoughts useful.

Why Didn’t I Get An Interview?
A company posting a job opening has a problem. They need someone to fix their problem, i.e. to do the work. You need to demonstrate that you are the solution to their problem. They don’t really care if their position is the ideal position for you and fits your career perfectly. What they selfishly care about is whether you can do the job with a minimum amount of supervision. That will make their collective lives easier and that’s their objective, not to make you happy.  So, distinguish yourself. Tell the potential employer why you are the best solution for them.

With that in mind, there are two main reasons why you might not get an interview after submitting a resume. One is that there simply may be many other candidates with significantly more experience or more relevant credentials than you have. The other reason is that your cover letter and/or resume either fail to distinguish you in any meaningful way or contain something disqualifying.

Let’s tackle the latter issue first. Don’t say that you are currently the “Director of Human Resorces.” We all have spell check. Use it.  Also, don’t go overboard in making your past experience sound like it fits the job you’re applying for. We had a dual job title in the posting for which I reviewed applicants, just because we weren’t sure which title would best fit the job. It was a bit of an unusual combo!  But about one quarter of the resumes we received listed the exact same dual title in the experience sections of the applicants’ resumes!  It’s highly unlikely that so many of the applicants actually had that unusual job title–in fact, I doubt any of them did! It’s great to tailor your cover letter and resume to the job for which you are applying, but, please don’t go so far as to change your previous job titles, or to so obviously doctor anything else just to make yourself sound like a better fit.  Last, don’t cram so much information into your cover letter that it’s, say, seven paragraphs long. As a friend recently commented when discussing this with me, “the best idea for a cover letter is to ‘get in and get out,’ before you make a mistake.”

So, let’s say you don’t make any egregious errors in your cover letter or your resume. What’s the other reason for not getting an interview?  Most often, it’s a failure to distinguish yourself. You can always take the tried-and-true method of sending a three-paragraph cover letter, with one paragraph introducing yourself, one highlighting your background, and the last one saying, “thanks for your time and consideration.” But, here’s the thing. . . everyone else is sending letters with that same standard format. So, unless your credentials are so fantastic that they elevate you on their own, you need to do more to stand out.   That’s where a skillfully written cover letter can help.

Ways To Distinguish Yourself in a Cover Letter
The sole purpose of a cover letter (and resume, for that matter) is to get you an interview, by indicating that you will solve the company’s problem. Given that, remember the following:

  1. The first line of your cover letter is the best chance to grab the attention of your potential employer. Use it wisely. Twenty or so of the resumes I reviewed opened with a line that said something like, “My name is Jane Smith.” Another bunch opened with “I am writing to you today to . . .” You don’t need to be a career coach to recognize that neither of those openings is a good use of the most expensive real estate in your letter. Another opened with something to the effect of: “I know that I have an unconventional background, but please keep reading.” Needless to say, at that point I continued to read further! So, use that opening line to your benefit, not your detriment.
  2. Your cover letter and your resume are door openers, so they needn’t include every last detail of your life to date. Be vicious in your editing! Cut out all but the truly important or truly differentiating, so that these points will not be diluted out by the ‘fluff.’
  3. Read and re-read your cover letter and resume. More importantly, have someone sharp take the viewpoint of the employer and read them as well. Ask that person if these documents distinguish you as someone who can solve the company’s problem. Also, ask the person for feedback on what’s strong and necessary and what might be disqualifying.
  4. Unless you graduated first in your class from Harvard and were class president, while also curing cancer during your sleepless evenings, consider taking a bit of a risk in your cover letter. I got 140 of them. How do I know any one person is different, better, or otherwise worth my time to interview? Right, I don’t, unless someone shows me that they are!

Sometimes this stuff is simple. Sometimes not. If you need help making your cover letter stand out from the rest, let us know.  Call 301-520-9511 or email