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Costly Cover Letters
By Susan Bowles, Special to Gannett
If you're looking for a job, the numbers are against you.

On average, every job opening in the United States attracts 150 applicants, says Larry Light, founder and president of eJobCoach.com (www.ejobcoach.com) in Mission Viejo, CA. The person assigned to sift through that stack of potential hires may leave just 15 minutes for the job. So, hello: You've got 10 seconds to make a good impression.

Given such a tiny window, how can you possibly cut through the competitive clutter and get yourself noticed?

With an eye-catching, interest-inducing cover letter.

Unfortunately, the tide flows against you here, too. That's because most jobseekers are woefully ignorant when it comes to writing enticing cover letters.

"There's a lot of mystery surrounding job hunting," Light says.

Well, mystery be banned. Here are the top misconceptions job candidates have about cover letters and how yours can overcome them.

1. The cover letter is a form letter.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a cover letter isn't one-size-fits-all. Rather, it should be a thoughtful document that specifically addresses the position and the company you're applying for.

Indeed, says Randall Hansen, a marketing professor at Stetson University in DeLand, FL, and webmaster and publisher of Quintessential Careers (www.quintcareers.com), your letter should show that you've researched this company and are a good fit with its culture and mission.

2. The cover letter merely summarizes your resume.

No, says Susan Ireland (www.susanireland.com), a resume and cover letter expert in Berkley, CA. While a resume is "a word picture of you at your next job," she says, "the cover letter should create a picture of you at the interview." Use it to show your personality:

  • Are you creative? Use a clever play on words.
  • Are you amazingly organized? Use bullet points.
  • Are you informal and relaxed? Write with professional ease.

The key, Ireland says, is to hook the hiring manager so he or she wants to find out more about you and will turn to the accompanying resume.

3. Generic salutations are fine.

Actually, they're lazy.

True, a job ad may tell you to send your cover letter and resume to "Hiring Manager," but in this communication-savvy age, you most certainly can find out that person's name. Go to the website. Call the company. Show some initiative and get a name, says Hansen.

"I still get cover letters sent to me that say Dear Sir or Madam," he says. "They're so stilted."

4. Formal is better.

If you equate formal with professional and write that way, your cover letter is going to come off as a form letter, Ireland says. Again, let your personality shine through and "loosen up."

5. Length is relative.

This must be what a recent job applicant thought when he sent a three-page cover letter to Hansen. But rather than coming off as impressive, he looked self-indulgent.

"The guy was so full of himself," Hansen recalls. "The person was fooling himself!"

Instead, a good cover letter should be just four paragraphs, Hansen says:

  • The first should tell the reader why you're an ideal candidate for this job. Also, if you've been referred to the position from someone in your network, this is the time to drop that name.
  • Paragraph two gives more details about your qualifications.
  • Graph three shows some insight into the company and shows you've done your homework.
  • Paragraph four wraps up the letter.

Keep your letter to a single page, Hansen says. Use 12-point type, adds Ireland, and 1-inch borders "so there's lots of white space."

"Think about junk mail," she says. "How can I find out the fastest if I can throw this away without losing a million dollars? That's how employers are, too."

And by all means, avoid tired, form-letter-sounding phrases like, "I am writing to apply for such and such a job," or "Enclosed please find my resume." (Duh, experts say. As Light points out: "If it's there, it's there.")

6. Email applications don't require cover letters.

Of course they do, Hansen says. And here, length is even more important. Keep an electronic cover letter to three paragraphs, and make sure it fits the screen size so hiring managers don't have to scroll down to finish it.

7. The company should call you.

If you end your letter saying, "I hope to hear from you," chances are you won't.

"In job seeking, you have to be a little more aggressive," Hansen says.

So instead of signing off with a meek appeal, tell the person reading your letter that you will call in a week to 10 days. Let them know that you want the interview; heck - you want the job!

"That's a much stronger position," Ireland says. "I'm here, I'm ready; let's go."


Susan Bowles is a business journalist based in Washington, DC. She has 20 years journalism experience and has written for USA Today, USATODAY.com, the Washington Post, the St. Petersburg Times and The Palm Beach Post.