Career Resources

Creative Cover Letters

In an intensely competitive environment, it is vital to differentiate yourself, and a great cover letter will do just that.

Diane M. Barowsky, FACHE

You’ve heard about a good opportunity. Your resume is well done and up-to-date. Before you respond, take a good look at your cover letter. If it’s a form letter, don’t send it. If you do, you may be making a big mistake.

Consider the response any job opening generates, think about how many resumes will be received (especially if you are responding to an ad). You can differentiate your candidacy through a well-written, pertinent, concise cover letter. Your cover letter is an opportunity to attract the attention of the recipient and get your resume read.

Consider these basic rules for writing a good cover letter:

Address The Letter To The Appropriate Individual. Call the receptionist to get the person’s name (correct spelling, please) and title. If you cannot obtain that information, address it to “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Human Resources Manager,” etc. Try not to use “Dear Sir or Madam.” This makes you appear out of date and suggests your letter may be one of many, not one crafted for the job you want.

Keep It Brief — Limit The Letter To One Page. The first paragraph should state the position you are interested in. The second paragraph should describe your specific skills and expertise and how they match the recipient’s needs. You need to do some homework here. The third paragraph can be used to explain anything unusual in your resume (gaps in your career, excessive number of moves in a short time period, etc.) or anything else that isn’t readily apparent from your resume (unique experience or background, e.g., you grew up in the city where the job is located, etc.).

Include Both Your Work And Home Phone Numbers. If you are concerned about phone calls at work, it is fine to add a statement such as “please feel free to contact me discreetly at work at 312/782-3113.” Don’t expect the hiring manager to call you at home in the evening. If you prefer messages be left on your home answering machine, state that in your letter. Then make sure you have a professional greeting on your answering machine and plan to check for messages frequently.

As you prepare your cover letter, put yourself in the position of the recipient. Does it attract your attention without being cute or gimmicky? Remember, it is a professional letter meant to demonstrate your personal style — it should not be to informal or casual.

Ask a colleague to read your cover letter. Is it clear, direct, with good sentence structure and grammar? Mistakes or misspellings will give a negative impressions and probably eliminate you from consideration. Does the letter encourage the reader to peruse your resume? That is its role, after all. Since resumes tend to look alike, a well-written cover letter can be the determining factor in getting you that interview. It is your chance to confirm how much you know about the organization and its challenges (beyond what the ad states). Once you have done your research, you can then describe how your particular skills are a match for the organization’s needs.

It is okay to fax a resume and cover letter if time is of the essence. However, always follow-up with an original in the mail. Don’t get lazy and let the fax sheet substitute for a good cover letter. The amount of time and attention your information receives will probably be proportional to the amount of time and attention that you expend.

If you are not applying for a specific job but are interested in available opportunities, use your cover letter as an introduction. You may choose not to include a resume, but make a case for why the recipient should want to meet with you. Be cautious — don’t include cliche statements like “healthcare is undergoing significant change,” etc. Research your intended audience and include a “hook” that will get you noticed — and an introductory meeting.

If you have been referred by someone the recipient knows, begin your letter with that. The key is to attract the reader’s attention. Remember that your cover letter may be one of dozens — or even hundreds if you are responding to an ad. You need to make a positive impression quickly.

Your cover letter should be upbeat and enthusiastic without being arrogant — save the glowing adjectives. Don’t emphasize any shortcomings but do accentuate your strengths. Don’t complain about your current position (or situation, if you are unemployed). Do be positive about why you are seeking a new challenge.

Don’t offer salary history or requirements. There is disagreement on this issue — if salary is requested in an ad, it might be best to state the compensation is only one determinant and you will be comfortable with a competitive salary for the position in question. There are always ways to structure a compensation package — don’t eliminate yourself because your salary is too high or too low.

As you reread your cover letter, count the number of “I”s and keep them to a minimum. Rather than focusing entirely on yourself, focus on the recipient and what you have to offer. The reader is more interested in what you can do for him or her than what he or she can do for you.

Your cover letter should look good. A poorly typed, hard to read, small-print cover letter will not convey the professional image you want. There should be enough white space so the letter does not look crowded. Using bullets or bold print (sparingly) will add interest to your letter. Use the same paper that your resume is printed on.

A savvy job seeker will keep track of every cover letter and resume that is mailed with the date, recipient, and follow-up. Always sign your cover letter — it is surprising how many people don’t. Nothing makes your cover letter look more like a form letter than the absence of a signature.

So you are probably asking, “why all the fuss about something as mundane as a cover letter?” Most professionals have learned how to write good resumes. In an intensely competitive environment, however, it is vital to differentiate yourself and a great cover letter will do that. It is your sales pitch — the opportunity to be more creative than you can be with your resume and to display your personality.

Diane M. Barowsky, FACHE, is president of Barowsky Search Partners in Olympia Fields, Ill.

This article is reprinted from Healthcare Executive.