Job Seekers: Include a Solid Cover Letter to Have a Bigger Impact

“Please send your résumé and a cover letter.”


There it is. The dreaded second ask. Here you were hoping that you could get away with just sending a résumé, and now you have to scrape together a cover letter … and you hate cover letters.

Sound familiar? Because I hear it often.

I haven’t met too many people who actually enjoy writing cover letters, and I can understand why. However, a cover letter can serve as a great opportunity to stand out from other applicants if you choose to take advantage of writing an effective one.

So, how do you make one effective?

Keep it really simple; two-thirds to three-quarters of a page max. Whoever gets your cover letter will not want to read a long letter but will more likely than not read a concise and compelling one.

The first two items on the page are your address and the date. Place those in the upper left-hand corner followed by a space and then the hiring manager’s name and job title (if you can find it) followed by the company’s address; just like with any formal business letter.

The first paragraph (which is one sentence long) states who you are and why you are writing to them. This can be in response to a specific job posted or because you simply have an interest in the company even if there is no job posted. Yes, you can (and should) do that if you’re really interested in a particular company.

Next paragraph (which is separated by a space), two or three lines about the company and any recent news you’ve uncovered in your research. For example, a congrats on their new product line that you’ve seen in your local store or maybe a recent acquisition that you read about.

Then, two or three lines on what you think the pain points are for the hiring manager. They all have them, especially when they are looking to fill roles. Get out in front of it and make a guess based on the job description. If you can tie it back to the previous paragraph, great; if not, that’s okay. In either case, you’ll likely either be right on the money or really close with your assumptions.

For example, “Given the recent acquisition of XYZ Inc. and its vast assortment of products, I have to imagine there is a need to not only integrate the products into your company’s larger portfolio, but also to develop and execute a cohesive marketing strategy to build awareness of this new-look product line.”

Next, illustrate a personal business achievement of yours that has some parallels to the pain point you just mentioned in the previous paragraph.

When I say illustrate, I mean tell a (very brief) specific story of how you achieved or accomplished something that made your current or previous role better in some way. It’s so much more interesting for the reader and also allows you to infuse a little personality into these typically dry letters.

Finally, express your interest in wanting to learn more about the role and the company.

End it.

That’s it. Interesting and to the point. You are putting a majority of the focus on the hiring manager and not yourself. Most job seekers do just the opposite; they just talk about themselves and their skill sets.

Don’t do that.

A hiring manager is not going to take the time to piece your experience together to determine if you could possibly be a good fit. He or she will do the easier thing instead and move onto the next résumé.

Do the work and SHOW them that you’re worth speaking to about the role.

Okay, I got all that, but these still take time and I’m busy. Can’t I just use a generic cover letter instead?

HR professionals and hiring managers can sniff out generic cover letters in two seconds. It’s a wasted opportunity and, more importantly, could actually make your first impression a negative one.

Take the time to do a little research about a company to show your interest and then make the majority of the cover letter about the company and the hiring manager.

This approach will help you stand out from dozens (if not hundreds) of other applicants.

How Far Back Do I Need to Go on My Résumé?

The reality is, there are no “rules” when it comes to résumés; and this is a great thing. Clients always tell me that they want to stand out. Well, the only way to stand out is to write your résumé differently than everyone else.

The point of a résumé is to help you land an interview. That’s it. It therefore needs to highlight achievements and accomplishments. Also, it does not need to be a full list of every position that you've held over your career.

It is neither necessary nor required to go back to the very beginning of your work history on a résumé. In fact, in some cases, it can actually be detrimental. For example, I work with clients of all different ages. Many job seekers in their 50s are very concerned about ageism, which sadly, is a real issue in many companies. An interviewer is not allowed to ask someone how old they are and a job seeker has no obligation to disclose that information on their résumé. A job-seeker’s first or second job 25 or 30 years ago is not relevant to the job they are seeking in 2018. Yes, that job helped form them into the professional they are today, but that does not mean that it still belongs on a résumé.

Additionally, if you are at least 10 years removed from college, take your graduation dates off of your résumé and your LinkedIn profile. A degree is a degree; the date is irrelevant.

As a general guide, if you have been working for 10 years or less, keep your résumé to one-page max. For all others (with the exception of academic CVs, etc.), keep your résumé to two-pages max. I've worked on plenty of résumés and this can be quickly accomplished by either eliminating weaker bullet points within a position or by simply eliminating older jobs from your past.

Your résumé is your marketing document, not a legal document. It should be accurate but also simply relevant to what you have accomplished and how those accomplishments can best serve you in your next opportunity.

For more information on writing an effective résumé, please visit my résumé page here.

How to Make Your Résumé Stand Out

The #1 request I get from clients is that they want their résumés to stand out from the crowd. I've read tons of résumés as both a hiring manager and as a consultant. Many résumés do tend to sound the same and this can make a hiring manager's job of finding the best candidate a very difficult task.

According to various articles, most hiring managers and recruiters spend less than a minute (in some cases, only a few seconds) reviewing a résumé. While this is unfortunate, considering how much value both they and job seekers place on this document, knowing this information illustrates why it’s critically important for your résumé to stand out enough for someone to want to read it for more than simply a few seconds.


I. Before updating your résumé, consider these points:

A. The end goal of the résumé is to get the interview, not the job. The résumé needs to be written so that people WANT to get to know YOU better. You still need to interview before a hiring decision is made, therefore don’t worry about loading up your résumé with unnecessary details (more on that below).

B. Hiring managers and HR folks are busy people (and typically get a stack of résumés to review at one time); therefore, your résumé needs to be clear, compelling, and easy to follow – whether someone is skimming the document quickly or reading it through more carefully.

C. The résumé needs a 3-4 sentence Summary at the top that clearly communicates who you are, why you're awesome, and what you’re looking to do next. Do not assume that a hiring manager (or anyone else) is going to take the time to piece together your experience to determine if you’re a good fit for a role. You've already determined that the role you're interested in could be a good fit. Use this section (and a cover letter, part D.) to make it easy for the hiring manager to see it too.

D. In addition to the Summary, a job and company specific cover letter can go a long way. I know most of you dread the thought of writing these things, but this is yet another way to stand out because so many job seekers do not take full advantage of these cover letters. These letters are especially important for people who want to branch out into something new or different from their current roles.

E. Realize that simply sending your résumés only through on-line portals is pretty much an exercise in futility. I know it’s easy but your name literally just sits in a queue with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of other names. Also, regarding the recruiting software that some companies use, it's all but impossible to really know what those bots are "looking" for. Instead, find the hiring manager on LinkedIn and mail your résumé directly to him or her. Give yourself a chance by having the decision maker (not a computer) see your résumé.

Note: You can do this last part whether there is a specific job posted or not.


II. Below are some issues that impact many résumés today and what you can do to fix them.

Issue: A heavy focus on keywords: Again, many job seekers are either trying to guess what the recruiting software that many companies use as initial filters are looking for and/or are simply restating the job description in their own résumés. Keep in mind that if you and several other candidates are simply rewriting the job description, then guess what? All of those résumés will sound very similar and you will actually be doing yourself a disservice.

Solution: Use keywords sparingly. If you see that several different job descriptions for similar jobs keep stating certain words, then sprinkle some of those in, otherwise focus on YOUR information using YOUR voice.


Issue: Similar, tired, overused terms: Phrases like "results driven", "solutions oriented", etc., are meaningless. Those phrases can apply to literally ANY job function in ANY industry.

Solution: Talk about your accomplishments and BE SPECIFIC. What solutions did you come up with? What were the results of the big project that you led? Did you help exceed the company’s sales targets in some way? Paint a picture for the reader by telling short stories.


Issue: Listing tasks instead of achievements: I know the day-to-day is important however your résumé is, most likely, the first interaction that an organization or an individual will have with you. You can talk about the day-to-day tasks during an interview. Leave it off your résumé.

Solution: The résumé needs to be a highlight reel of what you have accomplished in your career. These don't have to be monumental, company-changing projects, but if you made the company better in some way, talk about it!


Issue: Writing only sentence fragments that begin with verbs: I was originally taught to write a résumé this way and so were you. The problem is that nowhere else in the English language do we speak, read, or write this way. Therefore, why are we writing these important documents in such a choppy way?

Solution: Write your résumé in normal sentences. Use "I" and "We" and "the" and don't be afraid that you're adding too much clutter (or personality!). You're not. If you eliminate the meaningless words and information (listed above), the full sentences will fit perfectly and the whole document will read so much easier.


Issue: The résumé is visually exhausting: Embrace the white space. EVERYONE has an initial reaction when they open a book or look at any other type of document for the first time. If the page is loaded with copy from end to end and top to bottom, and it looks like it's going to be a slog to get through, you're already at a disadvantage. Alternatively, too much white space and the résumé could come off as weak.

Solution: Find the balance. As a test, show your résumé to some friends and simply ask them for their initial reactions before they even read a word. Their reactions will tell you if you have a balance. Generally speaking, if you've been working for less than 10 years, your résumé really should be one-page max. Otherwise, try and keep it to 1.5-2 pages max. Bear in mind that you don’t need to list jobs that are no longer applicable.


So, there you have it. This list is certainly not exhaustive but it's a start. A résumé (and a cover letter) are platforms to tell YOUR story in a compelling and relevant way to hiring managers who are looking to fill positions.

Try an approach that most job seekers are not doing and make your résumé and personality stand out to get the interview for the job that you want.