3 Simple Steps To Decoding A Cover Letter

ThinkstockPhotos-187458884It’s not easy to fill the job with the right talent — even if a candidate has all the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience for the position. This is because the candidate may not give you enough clues. Job searches have changed, perhaps becoming more challenging over the years as more people appear to be applying to fill fewer open positions.

This means that you’re inundated with more applications than you have the time to read through in detail; and as a result, you are forced to limit your time and attention to assessing the quality of the cover letter. Everything starts with the cover letter. It’s more than reasonable to assume that if the cover letter is weak, the resume will not be up to par either.

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If the cover letter plays such a pivotal role in the application process, how do you distinguish between a promising cover letter and a dud?

Here are 3 questions to ask when you read a cover letter:

1. Has it been customized?

It’s a good thing when candidates use cover letter templates. It shows that the candidate is making an effort to be as professional as possible and making it easier for you to scan their cover letter. Templates help get the basic formatting right. When you think about it, there are so many nuances to consider when formatting that if a candidate does not use a template, they are likely to make a mess of the whole thing – with the addresses in the wrong place, an awkward salutation and a rambling description of why you should consider them for the position.

However, what is not a good thing is if they don’t take the time and trouble to customize the cover letter. Without customization, all they’ve done is get the formatting structure down. You have no idea if they are familiar with your company, you don’t know if they even understand the requirements of the job, and you have almost no clue whether or not they would make a good fit.

Here are some clues in a customized cover letter that tells you the candidate has taken the time to thoroughly research your company and carefully considered the position you’re offering:

  • ·  They appear familiar with relevant industry news.
  • ·  They appear to know about your latest product launch.
  • ·  They mention that they used your products or services.
  • ·  They make comments about the position that hint that they have done similar work in the past.
  • ·  They appear to understand your needs.
  • ·  They give good reasons why they are able to fulfill your criteria.

2. Is it succinct?

A prolix cover letter that covers everything about the candidate’s background and experience has no place in a cover letter. You don’t have the time to read chunky paragraphs with dense prose in the hope of extracting a nugget of relevant wisdom. What you are looking for are short paragraphs, short-to-medium sentences, relevance, flow and concise details. A good candidate understands that they can impress you with in-depth facts in the resume and win you over with their knowledge and experience during the interview. They don’t have to pack it all into the cover letter.

3. Do you see any errors?

Errors shouldn’t automatically disqualify someone. However, errors matter if written communication is essential to their job description. It could have serious consequences if the candidate will be writing to clients or doing business reports as part of their job. There are many reasons why a candidate might make spelling and grammar mistakes. A candidate may have been in a hurry to turn in their resume for fear that someone else might get the job. A candidate may have rewritten their cover letter so many times that they didn’t proofread their writing properly. And a candidate may have relied a little too heavily on the autocorrect feature of their word processing program. However, one possible reason for errors is that they don’t know how to spell well and struggle with syntax. While one error might be due to oversight, a few errors indicate a clue about the candidate’s written communication skills.

What a Good Cover Letter Should Tell You

Essentially, a cover letter should tell you if they are a match for the job. In a few sentences, you should be able to decide whether to dig deeper by reading their resume or whether your time would be better spent reviewing the next application in your pile.

Unfortunately, many candidates neglect to put the proper time and attention into creating a cover letter that counts. They think it only plays a small part in the hiring process. What they don’t realize is that it’s the gateway to earning more of your time and consideration.

MORE: The Job Search Has Changed

Sara Stringer

Sara Stringer
Sara is a former medical and surgical assistant who now does freelance business consulting.

Sara Stringer

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