I've been hiring people for my teams for over 15 years, so it's safe to say that I've seen just about everything when it comes to cover letters, resumes and interviews. At least, I thought I had. Talent evaluation is one of my strengths, as evidenced by the long list of high achieving staff I've had over the last decade and a half. But something's happened since the last time I had to hire someone.
I currently have five vacant positions on my Policy & Communications team. That means I'm pretty immersed in reading cover letters on a daily basis. With five jobs at the ready, I expected to have a much easier time finding qualified candidates than has been the case thus far. In fact, what I'm finding is a shocking lack of ability for candidates to market themselves effectively.
As a general rule, I read cover letters first. The letter is where you need to "wow" me. Most resumes are quite similar in style and structure, so the letter is your chance to tell me something that will make you stand out. Treating the letter as an afterthought is a terrible idea. If you have a terrible cover letter, I don't even look at your resume. There's nothing in there that will compensate for poorly communicating why it is you want to work for my organization. Especially when you are applying for a communications position.
Most of the cover letters I receive don't mention my organization at all. That makes it clear to me that the letter you sent is one of many you're sending out just to check off some box. If you can't take the time to personalize a cover letter, why would I ever hire you? Mentioning the position and the organization are the very least you can do. I also want you to tell me why you want to work in my organization. Not because you think it'll be "great" or "rewarding." I know both of those things already - I'm working here, aren't I? I want to know why you really want to work here. What is it about the organization that moves you to want to be here? If you can't tell me that, why would I ever consider hiring you? I wouldn't.
Responsiveness is also vitally important. Two weeks ago, I received a letter and resume from an impressive candidate - on paper. Before deciding whether to bring her in for an interview, I reached out to the applicant with a clarifying question less than an hour after she applied. I'm still waiting for a response. She made my decision for me.
Look, I get it. Searching for a job can be very stressful and we all hit moments when we get dejected about our prospects. We've all been there. And, yes, there are many parts of the process we have no control over. But that doesn't mean you are powerless. I say it all the time: focus on the things you can control. You can control the quality of your cover letter, the details of your resume and you sure as heck control whether you respond to a potential employer. What most job seekers don't realize is that they have far more control and power than they realize. Use it and I promise you'll see a difference.