Cover Letter Case Study

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

In my role as a professional recruiter, I’ve noticed these days that very few job candidates send cover letters with their resumes. And when I do see a cover letter, I usually glance at it for only a second or two. That’s because most are so poorly written they’re a waste of time to read, which means they were a waste of time to write.

That doesn’t need to be the case. Indeed, it shouldn’t be. A well-written cover letter can be a powerful tool. It will grab the attention of recruiters and hiring managers and cause them to want to read your resume. In fact, I’ve known job candidates to get an interview primarily because they sent a cover letter along with their resume.

What makes a good cover letter? I’ll answer that question by showing you two actual cover letters that came across my desk. First, here’s one example of what not to do:

To Whom it May Concern,

I am a seasoned, results-generating individual with experience in finance, accounting, and operations.  I have proven success in different areas including legal, policy and administration, as well as Sarbanes Oxley. I also have experience in developing reports and presenting them to the executive team.

I am an intuitive and proven leader who is great at building and maintaining productive relationships with clients and collaborating with them, as well as with my peers.  And I also have great communication skills.

As I read this cover letter, these were my thoughts: 

  • What does this candidate mean when he says he is “seasoned”? Is he seasoned with salt and pepper?  Fresh herbs?  Sour cream n’chives? He’s making me hungry, and my mind has moved on to other things!
  • He says he is “results generating,” yet he doesn’t tell me what results he has produced. Quantifying some of his accomplishments in bullet-point format would have grabbed my attention.
  • He then goes on to mention that he has had “proven success in different areas.” What successes and what areas? I have no clue what challenges he has faced, what he had to do to overcome them, or what end results he achieved.
  • He talks about “developing reports and presenting them to the executive team.” What reports did he develop?  Why were they important?  What did the company gain from his efforts?  How does this relate to the job he is applying for?
  • He says he is an “intuitive and proven leader.” What does this mean? Is he psychic? If he can read people’s minds, that would be impressive! But kidding aside, I really might be impressed if he had cited his specific accomplishments as a team leader.
  • Finally, he mentions that he is great at building and maintaining relationships and collaborating with others. I certainly hope so. Otherwise, he’d have trouble holding any job. In fact, I have never had any job applicant admit to being a poor team player.

What did I learn about this person from reading this cover letter? Absolutely nothing!  In fact, in two seconds I determined that this cover letter wasn’t worth reading and decided that the candidate’s resume probably wouldn’t be worth reading either. This cover letter actually did this candidate more harm than good.

On the other hand, if this person had told me specifically what he had accomplished and how his qualifications and accomplishments related to the job I was seeking to fill, I would have been very interested in reading his resume. I want to see quantified facts, not boastful generalities.

Here’s an example of a good cover letter:

 Hi Jim,

I am a recruiting manager at XYZ Company, and I am very interested in interviewing for the job opening you have for a recruiting manager. Some of my successes include:

  • Managing a team of eight recruiters who hired more than 300 candidates a year.
  • Reducing time-to-hire from 40 days to 29 days, resulting in an annual savings to the company of $550,000.
  • Restructuring my team to achieve maximum efficiency by    allowing each recruiter to focus on sourcing for candidates based          on specific skill sets.

As you can see from my enclosed resume, I have more than eleven years of successful experience in recruiting. I would welcome the opportunity to speak with you in person.

Yours truly,

What did this person do right?

  • This cover letter is concise and filled with facts. It will pique the interest of the busiest recruiter or executive.
  • This candidate took the trouble to find out the recruiter’s name and personalize the letter.
  • He does not simply mention that he is a “proven leader” or that he has “proven success.”  He demonstrates that he has been successful by quantifying his accomplishments and describing the size of his team.
  • In this case, working for XYZ Company was a significant selling point, because it possessed a strong brand and it happened to be a direct competitor of the hiring company. A successful track record in a company with a business model similar to the one where you want to work can be a huge plus. You’ll be viewed as a less risky hire, which means that your chances of getting the job will be significantly greater.

One or two additional bullet points would have made this cover letter even stronger. But as written, it helped win this candidate an interview. 

Good cover letters are worth the investment. Recruiters and hiring managers often have hundreds of resumes to review. A well-written cover letter will make your resume stand out from the stack, so it actually gets read. I know this to be true from my own experience, and from talking to other recruiting professionals. In fact, there have been times when I considered passing on candidates until I noticed their cover letters highlighting their accomplishments. I wound up reading these resumes, and some of these candidates were eventually hired.

The purpose of the cover letter is to whet the appetite of recruiters and hiring managers, so they will want to read your resume. While a poorly written cover letter is a waste of time, a well-written one is a powerful tool that can give you the edge over the competition.

About the author:

Ryan Fisher is the CEO of Corporate Recruiter Tells All whose mission is to help job seekers understand how the hiring process works thereby empowering them to get the career of their dreams and the compensation they deserve.

Previously he had more than twelve years of successful experience as a professional recruiter in a variety of settings, including a recruiting agency, a small business, and a publicly held company with more than $1 billion in annual sales. In a typical year, he would handle more than 20,000 resumes, speak to thousands of job seekers, arrange hundreds of interviews, and negotiate hundreds of offers.