Want a job? Write a letter

In an age of tweets and posts, some job search experts argue that the cover letter is obsolete. Rick Sullivan begs to differ. The principal of HRStar Consulting, an Atlanta human resources firm, has volunteered to help job seekers through church-based career ministries for 25 years.

The career transition ministry at St. Brendan the Navigator Catholic Church in Cumming holds two sessions a year on writing cover letters, he said.

“In my resource library, I have a file on cover and thank you letters that has 43 articles in it. I don’t see professional coaches telling their candidates not to write cover letters,” he said. “The letter still plays an important part in the job search process.”

A recent survey conducted for OfficeTeam, a leading staffing service, backs him up. Of the more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 employers or more polled, 91 percent said that cover letters were very or somewhat valuable when evaluating candidates. Additionally, 79 percent said it was common to receive a cover letter even when the resume was submitted electronically.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I’m an advocate for the cover letter,” said Melissa Doster, branch manager for OfficeTeam and Accountemps (divisions of Robert Half International) in Atlanta. “A cover letter is the way for a candidate to make a good first impression.”

Sullivan said that it’s part of the professional tool kit. Many managers disregard resumes that come in without a cover letter, he said. It looks like someone just blasted out a resume without much thought.

“A cover letter shows an employer that you can write, and communication skills are prized more than ever in the job market,” he said. “You should write an individual letter for each job.”

Hiring managers want to see that a candidate can follow directions; that he understands the job requirements; and that he is enthusiastic about the position.

“A recent client posted a position and received 250 replies, but only two candidates had followed his specific instructions,” Doster said. “He asked them to address their exact fit to the position in the cover letter. Seventy-five percent didn’t even send a letter. They missed an opportunity.”

When writing a cover letter:

Follow directions. "Use the specific file format requested, answer the questions asked and show evidence of the skills required. Use key words from the job post. Show enthusiasm," Doster said.

Start smart. Address the hiring manager by name, not "Dear Sir or Madam." If you don't know, call the company and find out.

Keep it short and sweet. "It shouldn't be the story of your life, or a rehash of what's in your resume," Sullivan said. "It should be a one-page letter of three paragraphs." The first should introduce yourself, name the position and tell why you are interested. If you were referred by someone in the company or a friend of the manager, mention that in the first paragraph.

The second paragraph should tell what strengths you have that the employer needs or wants. Pull examples from your resume, or give additional information. “Quantify when possible, such as you supervised a team of 15 people or have five years' manufacturing experience. Numbers stand out,” Doster said. Keep information specific to the job.

“If you have gaps in your resume, explain that you were earning a certification or volunteering, but don’t offer personal information. It’s no one’s business if you had an operation or a baby,” she said.

The final paragraph should thank the manager for reviewing your resume and say how you will follow up. If you say that you’ll call back, make sure you do, Gail Geary said in her book “Your Next Career” (Jist Works, 2009). “This shows a seriousness of effort on your part which favorably impresses hiring managers,” she said.

Make sure the letter looks attractive and is easy to read. Use white space, short sentences, and bullet points to keep it concise.

Create a hook. "Use your first graph to show that you've done your homework and know something about the company and its needs. Give the manager a reason to read on," Doster said. Another way to stand out is to put an endorsement from a former boss or client at the top of the page, Geary suggested.

Make it accurate. Have a co-worker or family member proofread the letter before you send it. You want your first impression to be error-free.