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21st Century Cover Letter

Recruiting is a fast-paced and ever-changing industry in which we have to constantly keep up with the latest hiring trends and anticipate future shifts in the job market that are effected by various complex factors. Especially in my field of recruiting for technology industry sales, marketing, and business development positions, we have to stay at the forefront of the latest innovations so we can “talk the talk” with some of our industry’s smartest, fastest thinking, and most in-demand talent. 

Even though our work as recruiters is at the vanguard of the 21st century digital economy, why are so many job candidates still sending cover letters that look like they’d be more at home in the 1950s? Even though we live in an era of instantaneous global communications and draw upon connections of deep social networks in our personal and professional lives, too many candidates are still sending cover letters that are better suited to a pre-digital era of mailing resumes on paper and making cold calls to complete strangers who have never heard of you before. 

Too many cover letters are stiffly written and overly formal. They’re too long — they go on and on about the candidate’s qualifications even though the candidate’s full job history is available on the resume. Worst of all, in a short-attention-span society where every second is precious, cover letters are boring. Too many candidates treat cover letters as if they were a perfunctory last step in the process of hitting “send” on an email, with no real sense of urgency, salesmanship, or pizzazz to grab the reader’s attention. 

As recruiters, we need to reevaluate and raise the standards for what a cover letter really means in 2015. 

The traditional cover letter is dead. Let’s educate job candidates on the right things to say in a cover letter:  

Send an Email Instead

The first mistake many candidates make is including their cover letters as separate email attachments. Those attachments will probably never get read – most recruiters would prefer to just read the candidate’s resume, rather than click and download two separate attachments. This means that the concept of the cover letter as a separate document is totally outdated.

Instead of even taking the time to create a cover letter document, candidates should just focus on writing a concise, compelling email. The email — with a resume attached — is the new cover letter. 

Make the Cover Letter Email Count

People tend to devalue the importance of writing good email messages. Many job candidates might assume that “It’s just an email” and dash off a quickly written, sloppily worded message that looks like it was sent from a mobile phone and typed with a thumb while riding on a bus (“Here’s my resume, thx!”). 

The truth is that email is still one of the most powerful and important forms of business communication. Don’t underestimate the opportunity to make a good first impression with recruiters just by being able to craft an effective email message. Remember: cover letters (as separate attachments) are irrelevant now. The only opportunity that candidates have to say something to the hiring manager is in the email itself. 

In reading a cover letter email, recruiters and hiring managers want to get a quick sense of the candidate’s qualifications, whether the candidate is a good fit, and whether the candidate is connected to anyone at the company. They also want to get an impression of the candidate’s overall professionalism, attention to detail, and business communication skills. 

Does this sound like a lot of information to pack into a single email? Here’s how it’s done: 

Use This Cover Letter Email Guide

Here is a quick guide that candidates can use to create effective, useful, highly readable email cover letters: 

  • Keep It Concise: Your email should be short and to the point. Most recruiters don’t have time to read every email we get from candidates; instead, we tend to scan through the emails to find relevant information and quickly do the mental sorting process of figuring out which candidates are most worthy of additional follow-up time and attention.
  • Explain How You Heard About the Job and if You Know Anyone Who works at the Company: Companies love to hire from within the networks of their existing employees — if you have a connection to someone at the company, be sure to mention it prominently in the email.
  • Mention Which Job You’re Applying For: This sounds simple, but many candidates neglect to specify which position they’re applying for. Be sure to use the correct job title and any identifying numbers or codes listed on the job posting. This shows the recruiter that you have good attention to detail and that you care about making the recruiter’s job easier.
  • Explain How Your Skills and Personality Make You a Good Fit: Talk a bit about the overall reason why you’re applying for the job. What about your previous experience has prepared you? Why does this company sound appealing, based on what you know about the company culture?
  • Include Your Availability for an Interview: Offer some general timeframes in which you’d be available to talk by phone for an initial conversation — but be specific. If you can’t talk on Tuesday afternoons, don’t offer them as an option. Don’t waste the recruiter’s time.
  • Don’t Get Fancy With Your Email Signature: Lots of people use elaborate email signatures with inspirational quotes and/or clip art, but this is unnecessary and distracting in a professional job search email. Use a simple, unadorned email signature with your name, phone number, email address, and personal website (if necessary for sharing a work portfolio). Make it easy for recruiters to quickly access your contact information without bombarding them with visual clutter.

Cover letters may be dead, but smart, effective business communication is more important than ever. With these cover letter email tips in mind, candidates can help recruiters spend less time slogging through unnecessary attachments and cumbersome cover letter phrasing, and spend more time placing great people in great jobs!

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in Cover Letter]

Carolyn Betts is the founder and CEO of Betts Recruiting, a global recruiting firm with office locations in San Francisco, New York, Austin, and Dublin, Ireland. Carolyn is a sixth generation Bay Area native and is actively involved in the community, serving as a board member of the UCSF Partners in Care, an officer of the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals, and a member of Young Presidents' Organization. Betts Recruiting focuses on fast growing, innovative tech companies to build out revenue-generating talent roles to include sales, marketing, and customer success at all levels. Betts has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Women-Owned Businesses, and was named one of the Best Places to Work and Fastest Growing Companies in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Business Times. Betts’ clients include: New Relic, GuideSpark, Mixpanel, ON24, Radius, ToutApp, Zenefits, and more! Follow Carolyn Betts and Betts Recruiting on Twitter "@BettsRecruiting" and on LinkedIn. 

There are certain resume rules everyone knows because they’re practically engraved in stone. But the interesting thing is that most people also have a list of reasons why they’re the exception. Maybe you’ve seen the algorithms that multiply the number of jobs you’ve have by your years of experience, to tell you how long your resume really should be. Or, maybe you just know that you can break them in this one, specific instance.

With all the rules, and the amendments to the rules, it’s hard to know whether you should stick to conventional wisdom—or ignore it.

Well, here’s what we recommend:

1. Does Your Resume Still Need to Be One Page?

Let’s start with the fact that there is a real-life exception for when a one-page resume will not work in your favor. Federal resumes typically run two to five pages!

Not applying to work in the federal government? Then one page should be just right. Many people think it’s impossible to put their best foot forward with such little space; after all, if you’ve worked multiple jobs, that means cutting down the number of bullets—and maybe even leaving off certain work experience altogether. But here’s the secret: Deleting extra information works in your favor.

Cutting your experience down to one page forces you to zero in on the most relevant experience. Too many people have bullets that don’t really add anything (think: a language section that includes high school Spanish or every aspect of your first two jobs). If you cut all of the extraneous, decent bullets and focus solely on your greatest achievements and most applicable information—everything on that page is suddenly more relevant, more impressive, and more skim-able.

And that “rule” you might have heard that you can add a page for every five years of experience? I’m not buying it. I’ve seen people with more than a decade of experience who can write a concise, kick-ass resume on one page. So, don’t use time as a get out of jail free card.

When you might consider a second page is when you’re applying for an executive position. It should still be entirely composed of applicable, diverse sets of experience, but in this case you probably just have a lot more of it. In other words, you’ve held multiple jobs, you want to include your research, publications, or awards, and you have tech skills, language skills, and volunteering experiences as well. In this case, just add a summary statement that ties it all together concisely at the top.

Check Out Amazing Companies Hiring Now

2. Does Your Resume Arrangement Actually Matter?

First comes education, then experience, then skills, then a line about how your references are available upon request. There was a time—probably when you were applying for your first job out of college—when you were told to organize it this way. But that does not mean that every resume you submit for the rest of your career has to follow suit.

Unless you’re a recent grad, your education should never be above your experience. First, it shouts “young!” even if you’re a seasoned professional. Second, do you really want hiring managers to see your alma mater before they see the impressive programs you manage on a day-to-day basis? (Hint: No.)

Beyond that, you should think what arrangement makes the most sense for you. When I made the jump from full-time nonprofit work to editorial, mine started with “Editorial Experience” followed by a section called “Nonprofit Experience.” Had I just arranged my past roles in chronological order under a single “Experience” category, my writing roles would’ve seemed peppered in. This way, I was able to highlight how long I’d been writing and editing first, and then touch on my broader workplace history.

Not quite sure if you should restructure it? Muse columnist Lily Zhang gives great advice in her article, “ 4 Better Ways to Organize Your Resume, Depending on Who You Are and Where You're Going .”

3. Does it Matter if Your Resume Is Pretty?

OK, I saved the most controversial for last. This one is subjective, and the visual appeal of your resume may be important to some hiring managers and unimportant to others. (And irrelevant to some applicant tracking systems because the design might prevent the resume from being being read. So, if you are not submitting the resume via email, keep this in mind.)

There are a few things to take into consideration here. To start, this is not the most important rule. It doesn’t matter how gorgeous it is if it’s not relevant to the job you’re applying for (more on that here ), and the cover letter that accompanies it is a generic one that names the wrong organization. That said, a well-designed one can get you in the door. In a creative field, some level of ingenuity may be expected, and in a non-creative field, you’ll definitely stand out.

Finally, I think there’s something to be said for the confidence boost. I’d never considered the aesthetic design of my resume until I was offered a free redesign by an expert earlier this year. Suddenly, I wanted to find excuses to share it any way I could, attaching it to all kinds of networking emails. Even if the resume makes a marginal difference in your search, the newfound self-assurance could inspire you to apply for jobs you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Sure, it’d be easier to let your resume be as long as you’d like and stick with the same structure no matter what. But you’re not looking for easy—you’re looking for the approach that’ll move you forward in the process. So, as you’re preparing your application, keep these questions and answers in mind, because with resumes, following the rules may just help you land the interview.

Photo of computer courtesy of Shutterstock .