Killer Cover Letters: Answers to Reader Questions

by | April 07, 2010

Posted by Caroline Ceniza-Levine

Recently Vault.com and SixFigureStart teamed up to host an Ask Anything teleclass. We received over 200 questions! Here are some on cover letters:

Matt asks: What are recruiters looking for in a cover letter?

The main benefit of a cover letter is that it can say what a resume cannot. It is written in prose format, rather than bulleted, so more conducive to storytelling and description. This is great for telling the nuances of your great accomplishments. Resumes can highlight the metrics, but cover letters can provide the color and details.

That said, cover letters have to be concise. That doesn’t just mean short (because short with no information isn’t good either). Instead, you want to get to the point quickly and make relevant points: why you are good for this job; why you genuinely want this job; and why we the employer/ recruiter should be talking to you now.

David asks: How important is a cover letter really when applying for an analyst position at a [bulge bracket investment bank]? My career department always tells me to tailor my CL in every paragraph. However, I just got to know an alumni from last year that got into a BB IB and hasn’t tailored his CLs at all, since it is very time demanding. So should graduates really spend time on that or try to rather send our more applications?

There are a lot of interesting questions here: how much time should you spend on your cover letters v. other items on your search list? How important is tailoring a cover letter for jobs or programs that are similar across companies? When you hear that someone bucks a recommended strategy and does so successfully, does that mean the strategy isn’t good?

The cover letter should not exhaust all or even most of your search time. Some employers don’t even read cover letters, and you don’t know in advance of sending it how much weight it will be given, so you don’t want to needlessly spend too much time on it. HOWEVER, the employers who do read cover letters do care about their content. Furthermore, writing a good cover letter requires that you know what makes you valuable as a hire and that knowledge makes it good practice for other areas of your search. So it is worth spending some time to get a good cover letter down, but not at the expense of other things.

Tailoring each and every cover letter should absolutely be done but sparingly. Your key arguments should be roughly the same for most cover letters. You do want to change keywords and allude to what the company specifically mentions in the job description but this is a relatively quick switch. Of course, make sure you switch out names and company details for each cover letter. This is true for whether you are applying for a specific program, like the analyst programs at investment banks, or just similar jobs.

Finally, David points out that he knows of the exception: the guy who doesn’t do any cover letter work and still gets hired. We all know exceptions – the incompetent person that gets the promotion anyway, the person who doesn’t do any job search but lands one opportunity after another. This doesn’t mean that these are good tactics for the rest of us. You should try to have good all-around job search technique, including a good cover letter that is tailored to each job.

Jeffrey asks: …you say that you don't frequently read cover letters. Given this reality, is it better to write a longer and very complete description of what you can bring to the table rather than focusing more on brevity and mainly calling out the most relevant points on your resume?

Cover letters need to be brief but can still include a complete description of what you bring to the table. Complete doesn’t mean you have to itemize each and every thing you bring. It just means you answer completely what you bring to the job at hand. I bring a sense of humor but I don’t pitch that to my coaching clients. Rather, I talk about companies where I’ve recruited and coaching clients I have helped. I proactively pick the most appropriate examples and so I am brief, but I still answer completely what my prospect needs to make an informed description. It’s not an either/ or proposition to be brief or complete. Focus on both.

Filed Under: Resumes & Cover Letters


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