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June 17, 2002

Cover Letters Suck

Looking for a job is inherently unfair to everyone in the job market. You get the privilege of being graded, labeled, and pigeonholed by both human resources people and the interviewers. Human resource representatives get to dismiss your résumé and cover letter based on arbitrary standards that you don't know. Recruiters and executive consultants get to call you about positions you "may be interested in" despite it being in the wrong location and industry, or not call back about positions you did show interest in if it just doesn't work out with the client for some reason. I'm not bitter.

I learned very quickly that in the world of business it's not what you know, but whom you know. In university I was enrolled in a co-operative education program. This means that my time at school was sectioned up into four-month segments. I would have a term of school, then a term of (paid) work in my industry, assuming of course that I could find a company willing to hire me. My very first co-op term was scheduled four short months after I started school. I had completed the tenuous first term of my degree, and had to compete against hundreds of my classmates to find that crucial first job in our chosen industry.

Being just about fresh out of highschool with a taste of university under my belt, there wasn't a lot I could put on my résumé that my other classmates couldn't, except for whatever work experience I had from highschool. In other words, whatever job I got would be the result of either good marks (not if you're in the lower quartile), previous industry experience (reading Road & Track doesn't count apparently) or a combination of pity and the need for unskilled cheap labour for four months. I started cranking out the résumés in the hope that someone, somewhere would want me.

As it turns out, I applied to one company in Oakville where I actually knew someone. And not just anyone, but the person that would be doing the interviews! I knew this person from Ontario Youth Parliament, a group that did mock parliamentary sessions once a year for a weekend. I'd known him for a few years in passing, but meeting with him again less than a week previous to my interview with this company, I was fairly sure that I had a good chance of getting in. It turns out I was right - I was their second choice, due to the fact that I was a known quantity. Their first choice was a mature student in my class who had industry experience and about 8 years on me. I think he got quite a few offers, but luckily he didn't take the job I applied for. I got it, and thus learned, "It's not what you know, but whom you know."

I can't think of any period other than the job search where you are judged so quickly based on so little. Unless you know someone, first contact with anyone who can help you get into the company you applied to will be your cover letter. If you make it too long, chances are they'll scan through quickly and go on. If you make it too short, you may be trying to say too much with too little, or perhaps are missing relevant points entirely, hoping your résumé will fill in the gaps.

Speaking of which, your résumé really isn't much help. Take everything you've done in your life and cram it onto one page (ideally) in reverse-chronological order. Make sure it looks good, reads well, and explains everything, too. It appears to me to be like trying to juice a raisin instead of a grape; possible, but you've got to work damned hard to get anything out of it. Anyone who's managed to write a comprehensive one page cover letter and one page résumé is automatically eligible for employment by Reader's Digest, as far as I'm concerned. Less is more? My hairy left nut it's more.

At the beginning of my current job search, I didn't write typical cover letters. I've never enjoyed writing cover letters, didn't feel that I was any good at it, and assumed that my résumé would speak for itself. I did include a brief cover letter that basically said, "Here is my résumé. I am applying for position X. I am available immediately. Call at your convenience." Not very glamourous, and I'm sure it got ignored more than a few times. I am one who believes that hiring should be done based on merit, however, and merit should not be measured by one's cover letters. Well, at least not in my line of work.

Eventually I started filling out the cover letters a bit more, including examples of past employment experiences that would lend themselves to the position I was applying to. This was in an effort to persuade whomever was reading the letter that I was indeed worth interviewing. I stayed with this technique for a good long while, until I came upon a website, The site didn't actually have any advice (as I had hoped), it was just hawking a book by the same name that was full of job hunting tips and tricks. I signed up for the weekly newsletter that would give me a few tips and excerpts from the book, just to see what I could learn.

The first thing I learned was that everybody writes the same type of cover letter, and they all get the same response. So, my cover letters had to be different! Bold! Memorable, even. This advice, combined with my growing desperation to find a job before I borrow myself into a deep financial hole, catalyzed my cover letters. The easiest way to describe what my cover letters did would be to say they went from "bland form submissive" to "aggressive self-selling". I no longer humbly asked them to grant me the honour of reviewing my résumé for their beloved advertised position. No, sir. Instead, I outright tell them that my experience is good enough for them, and what I don't know I can learn, and that they need me on their side.

In one letter I even went so far as to tell one auto manufacturer I was applying to that their quality was suffering, they could no longer rest on the loyalty of their customers, and that the only person that could provide real change to the company as a whole was their biggest critic - me. I continued, saying that such a direct approach would cause much resistance in a unionized environment, and so I would win over my co-workers and have them embrace and push for change. With an ending flourish of megalomania, I told them that the entire organization would benefit from having me, no matter whether they were making trucks, cars, or toaster ovens. Yes, toaster ovens. I have not heard back from them, nor do I ever expect to. Perhaps it was passed around the HR office a few times, and maybe someone even thought I had mucho grands cajones, but I doubt I'll be interviewed there. That's OK... I'd prefer to work elsewhere and continue to criticize them.

Despite my newfound snap and sparkle that are possibly making my cover letters stand up and be noticed, I still detest writing them. What is their real purpose? I can think of three purposes:

  1. Highlight relevant experience and expound on points not explicitly stated in your résumé.
  2. Suck up.
  3. Both.
I've heard of some people actually making various versions of their résumé, each one tailored for different types of jobs they're applying for, or even customized for each application. The thought makes me shudder. Thus, I do use my cover letters to include points not found in my résumé and to reinforce what it does say that is relevant. However, I still believe that sucking up is a major part of the cover letter. Think about it: you are hiring, and receive two résumés that are pretty much equal, but one has a cover letter that almost spit-shines your boots. The other is a typical form letter. Who will you hire? The bootlick gets my nod, as he's obviously a "team player", right? Sigh.

I've been searching for over two months now, and have my résumé available online in three separate job sites, and in the capable hands of at least a dozen different recruiters and executive consultants. If there's a job out there for me, I'm thinking my chances of finding it are pretty good at this point. With luck, I won't have to write any more cover letters. I've got one interview coming up, and another possible one in the offing. How? I know some people. Sigh.



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