Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




What should a cover letter say?

I am trying to write a good cover letter for my resume, but don't know exactly what to say?  I would like to ask those folks that actually read these things to give me their take on what I should and should put in a cover letter.

A normal cover letter of mine goes something like...

Dear SoandSo

As noted on my resume I have experience doing this and that and I graduated from such and such a college... blah.

Thanks for your time etc etc

Sincerely,

Soand So

( Please don't post links to sites with example cover letter.  I want the opinions of those that actually read them and what do they look for if anything.  You do read cover letters right? )

Pinky and the Brain
Friday, May 09, 2003

Lol.  Pinky and the Brain.  That was a good toon.  Pinky says, 'What are we going to do tonight Brain?.'  The Brain says, 'We are going to do what we do every night, Pinky.  Try and take over the world!'

No, seriously I would use the cover letter to convey some important points of information such as where you heard about the job,  a summary of your experience, maybe a link to your website if you have one.  Really I don't think cover letters are all 'that'.  Now if you write one that is totally misspelled and has poor grammar then you can prolly kiss the job good-bye.

JJ
Friday, May 09, 2003

When I read cover letters, I'm speciffically looking for the fact that you know what position you're looking at and how (specifically) you think your background matches what we need.

Besides helping me understand how you might fit, it also weeds out the people sending their resume to every company they can find.

RocketJeff
Friday, May 09, 2003

I agree with RocketJeff.

"I would be perfect for this position because I'm a brown-nosing yes-man and have been one all my life."

www.marktaw.com
Friday, May 09, 2003

Seriously, the resume is a general document that's sent to everyone.  The cover letter is written for a particular position, and describes why you're the perfect match for the position.

Think of it as an advertisement for yourself.  Don't go overboard with marketing jargon, obviously.

Pretend that you're recommending your best friend for this job.  Write the letter that way.  Explain why you'd be great for the job, what qualities and experience you have that fit the job, and be enthusiastic.

Brent P. Newhall
Friday, May 09, 2003

Uh.... Rocket and Mark  - what, exactly, is wrong with sending a resume to a company that doesn't have an open job listing?

I'm curious - when you need to hire someone do you check your resume bank first? Or do you put up a listing and only review resumes in response to that listing?

Philo

Philo
Friday, May 09, 2003

The cover letter is the only part of a resume I will read, unless I am expecting the resume from someone I have already met.

I will only go on to read the main resume if the cover letter grabs my attention.

Ways to grab my attention:  prove to me that you know what my company does, and explain what you think you can do for my company.  Too many resumes are completely generic.  A generic cover letter / resume means that you stay completely generic in my mind...

Bah humbug
Friday, May 09, 2003

When I read cover letters, I want to know what you will do for ME. 

So do some research about the position and tell me in your letter how you will fill the job requirements and EXCEED them.  Something like... "My past experience has taught me to do <whatever> and I would like to implement <something> that will cut development time in HALF and generate $10,000 a year more in revenue."

Your resume will explain what you are capable of while your cover letter should convey how you are better than the competition and how you have innovative ideas to better the company's efficiency and profits.

Chris
Friday, May 09, 2003

"what, exactly, is wrong with sending a resume to a company that doesn't have an open job listing? "

Nothing's wrong - but if you're mass mailing a hundred companies with your resume (and identical cover), there is something wrong.

If the company doesn't have an advertised opening you should be explaining how your experiece would be valuable to the company and show some understanding of what the company is doing.

I don't know why you'd apply to a company if you don't know enough about what technology they're using to make a customized cover letter.

RocketJeff
Friday, May 09, 2003

Philo - nothing. If you don't know what the job is, don't talk about it.

The Resume and the Cover Letter are advertising tools. If they get you the interview then you can make an "in-store" sales pitch.

www.marktaw.com
Friday, May 09, 2003

We don't hire all that often, but I am impressed by a good cover letter directed specifically to me or our company. If an applicant doesn't bother to take the time and trouble to organize and write a really good letter explaining why they want to work for us, then I figure that person also won't take the time and trouble to do other jobs well.

Harvey Motulsky
Friday, May 09, 2003

Wow, you guys have opened my eyes.
In the legal world, the concept is "a cover letter will never get you the interview, but it can lose you the interview." Apparently if the IT world is run like those who have posted here, then it's up to the cover letter to get you the interview as well.

To be honest, I don't really understand the reasoning - I would think that in order to find the best possible person for your company, you would want to maximize the number of resumes you read, and screening based on "oh, this is a generic cover letter, screw him" seems a bit arbitrary to me, especially considering the current job market.

Now maybe a generic cover letter means the applicant's resume only gets a cursory glance, but I'd still give it that glance to see if maybe it's someone you really need.

And yes, I'm annoyed because I've always used a generic cover letter - just one introductory paragraph saying who I am and what I do. I've always figured people reading it were more interested in the actual meat of the product instead of the advertising fluff. Thanks for showing me that I was wrong and Microsoft was right. ;-)

Philo

Philo
Friday, May 09, 2003

You must tailor the cover letter to each particular job; if you haven't time to do that don't bother sending one, you will only make things worse.

You want to put on the letter why you want that particular job, and why you're looking to move to it from the one you've got.

Stephen Jones
Friday, May 09, 2003

[sigh] Ah well - so IT starts to become a "mature" industry.

I'm assuming I should also send it snail mail, either typed or laser-printed on 24# cotton bond paper?

Is there a recommended style guide for IT resumes I should get as well?

Philo

Philo
Friday, May 09, 2003

If you're not willing to invest a bit of time to tell me why I should look at your resume, why should I bother to invest the time? Especially in this market where each job posting gets at least 200 resumes submitted.

RocketJeff
Friday, May 09, 2003

Cover Letter = FUD
Resume = Features

I don't waste time on cover letters because I think they're worthless. To me it's about trying to get my abilities in front of your eyes. I know what I can do, you know what talent you may be looking for. Resumes are about matching those two together.

Honestly, you put more weight in "I see your company does Java development. I've been working in Java for five years and delivered several Java applications" than in the part of his resume that indicates specifically what he's done in Java?

How about if you're looking for someone for a new venture that's not public knowledge? How do cover letters help you there?

I sincerely suggest you are being short-sighted and putting too much weight on cover letters. I also see some desire for ego-stroking: "I want to know that you care about *me*" 

Philo

Philo
Friday, May 09, 2003




You could try something like that :

I've designed the Java Language

James Gosling

Jamie
Friday, May 09, 2003

Philo - Your statement about maximizing the search by viewing as many resume's as possible assumes that you're not already getting a ton of resume's.

If I were hiring, I would consider the whole package. I'd reduce my pain as much as possible by eliminating as many people as possible so I don't have to actually interview dozens of people.

If their cover letter shows signs of being amateurish, too eager, gramatically poor (unless they're foreign), then they're easy to eliminate.

Cover letters are probably weighed along with the resume. What weight you give to each is a different story.

www.marktaw.com
Friday, May 09, 2003

Got this in my mailbox form Careerbuilder.com:

Experts say never send a resume without a cover letter.
66% of Hiring Managers Prefer an Appropriate, Well-Written Cover Letter With a Resume*.  Don't get over-looked, use these cover letter tips to stand out against the rest and start searching and applying.

Cover Letter Tips: 

1.  When at all possible, address the letter to a particular person.  Do some research if necessary to find out the name of the person who will be reviewing your resume.  This reinforces that this is not a generic cover letter, but one made especially for them.

2.  Be sure to modify the cover letter to the particular job you are applying for and illustrate to them why you are the best choice for this particular position.  Hiring Managers look for specialized cover letters, not mass produced ones.

3.  Do research on the company you are applying for.  Discuss why this company/organization appeals to you.  This shows employers you went the extra mile to learn about them - it may give you the edge over the competition.

4.  Don't just repeat your resume and keep to one page.  This is a chance to not only illustrate your outstanding qualities, but to show your personality as well.  Employers should want to meet you, not just your credentials.

5.  Double and triple check for spelling or grammatical errors.  48% of hiring managers say they will not even consider a resume or cover letter with spelling errors*.

* Statistics provided by CareerBuilder.com Hiring Manager Survey

www.marktaw.com
Friday, May 09, 2003

Considering our HR person's English skills (or rather, lack thereof), I don't think our company discriminates on the basis of cover letter writing quality.

Said HR person is quite white-bread American, no worse and no better than the average middle manager out there. I think the "you better get the grammar correct or else" horror stories are just that: stories. Of course, it never hurts to err on the side of caution.

Martha
Friday, May 09, 2003

The person reading your letter has lots of things to do. So the first thing your letter has to do is tell him why you're contacting him. In other words, what position you're applying for.

He could be hiring five different people and it's just more convenient for him if you say which position you're contacting him about.

After that, the person needs to see three or four reasons why you would be useful for that job or are interesting to talk to. 

For example, 1,2,3 as to relevant achievments in other jobs or relevant learning. Don't make this a laundry list of every sibject you ever did.

.
Friday, May 09, 2003

"When at all possible, address the letter to a particular person.  Do some research if necessary to find out the name of the person who will be reviewing your resume. "

I've seen this tip before, and my research skills have always come up a little short in this department. Do you just call the company and hope the person answering the phone can tell you or transfer you to somebody who knows?

not planning a job search anytime soon
Saturday, May 10, 2003

Obviously you must put on the cover letter the exact details of the job you are applying for and where you saw it advertised.

A subject line in bold and underliined is a good idea.

You should always do this even if you put nothing else on the cover letter.

The advantage of the cover letter is that it allows you to have a standard resume.

But if you get the time you should consider tailoring the resume to the job as well. Simply putting the relevant bits of the alphabet soup in bold is a help. If you've worked on lots of projects you can choose which ones to describe in more detail.

Stephen Jones
Saturday, May 10, 2003

Okay, Philo takes the point that "do not act as you wish the world was; act as the world is" and will start tailoring his cover letters.

For those of you that review resumes, I offer these thoughts:

  First and foremost, I would recommend you review them as one of my favorite managers did - he had them delivered to him with the letters flipped to the back, so the first thing he saw was the resume. After he winnowed based on the resumes, then he might read the cover letters for obvious disqualifiers (grammar, spelling, attitude). For those of you without secretaries, open the envelope and immediately flip to the resume.
  You complain that you don't have time to read every resume. Then why are you wasting time with cover letters? You're effectively looking for a critical piece of software your company needs based on who has the prettiest box. Shouldn't you be more interested in what is inside the box?
  "Cover letters should be targeted to the job." Why? What organization on the face of this earth only has one job open? The person reading the resume may not have even advertised the position you're a fit for. Maybe his boss just said "hey, we really need to get started on that .Net project" and the next resume he reads is "Philo, etc - .Net Architect". If my cover letter was targeted to an open Oracle DBA position, he'd flip right past it.

  "I want to see that you've done some research and care about my company." Yeah. You want to be wooed. Gotcha. Remember five years ago when good coders wanted to be taken to dinner at Morton's or Ruth's Chris before they'd even consider your job offer? Remember what we all thought of those arrogant jerks? You're acting the same way - you want some ego-stroking that I like you; I really, really like you.
  You are not my employer. You are a potential job opportunity. My goal in sending you my resume is not to say "oh please, Mr. Employer, give me a job, I'll do ANYTHING" - it's to make you aware that my services are available. When you list a job on Monster, should I turn my nose up at you because you haven't bothered to learn anything about me? Of course not - you're advertising. My resume is the same thing.
  There are a thousand jobs out there and frankly I don't have any more time to research every single company than you do to read a five-page cover letter for every applicant. I skim and shotgun, hoping to make a good match. I look at the jobs you list and your website if I can. If it looks like a decent chance you'll have solid work for me, I'll send you my resume - now the ball is in your court to decide if *I* am what *you* are looking for.

  And let's cut to the chase - you want a targeted cover letter based on what you do. And where do I learn that? From your website? The website that was likely invented by your marketing team and is 3/4 lies? So you want me to create a fluff cover sheet based on your fluff website AND YOU'RE USING THAT TO SCREEN EMPLOYEES? Especially when all you have to do is flip one page and there's the meat of what you're really after - skills and experience.

  I would think if we were all true professionals I could send you a resume with no cover letter at all and it would accomplish the task, but even I realize that's a little too optimistic.

Ah well. At least I like wearing a coat and tie.

Philo

Philo
Saturday, May 10, 2003

As a company that has pretty specific instructions about how to submit a resume, I thought I'd throw in my two becoming-more-valuable Canadian cents.

I'm sure Philo would hate the way we screen employees

(For reference, the short version:

To submit a resumé, send us an email with the following characteristics [omitted].

Following this will get the applicant past our email filter such that a real person will read the cover letter. 

Interestingly enough, 90% of those who send us resumes fail this simple filter. I'm pretty comfortable with this criteria, since we have no positions that don't require attention to detail as the #1 most important skill/character trait. 

To get someone to read the resume, the cover letter has to generate at least two points.  We guarantee to add the contents and contact of the resume on file if the cover letter + resume generates at least four points.

Our Point System:

1 point Applicant mentions our company name
1 point Applicant has an idea of what they might do for our company.
2 points Applicant has an idea of what our company does.
3 points Applicant has relevant experience. )

We implemented the above approach because we were being buried in resumes, phone calls and even a guy who just showed up and demanded an interview.  This for a company that has never posted a single job.  Being on the smaller company side, we've also never yet had an open position for which we didn't already have half a dozen qualified candidates in mind.  Yet we've had more than one random stranger beg to come and work for us "on free trial".

Given that there seem to be a huge number of people looking for employment at the moment (although I optimistically think that things are getting better), and given that said people seem to think the best way of getting a job is to send a massive email/fax/mail broadcast out to every single company in the entire city that might be vaguely relevant, reading every resume is not an option.

Now, imagine that you are applying to a larger company that actually advertised positions.  Think of the volume of noise your signal is being choked with!  It might not be fair that you get filtered out, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.  Rather than whine about how this isn't the way it should be, it would make more sense to figure out how not to get filtered, and do something about it...

If you want my personal opinion, I think there is a tendency for job seekers to want the process to be a bit too easy.  Since job seekers can now send spam to employers, they don't bother to maintain old fashioned networks and then wonder why no one wants to read their resume. (I'm reminded of the donkey in Shrek- "pick me, pick me, ooh pick me")  Getting a job is hard, from both sides of the fence.

Furthermore, a resume is simply a laundry list of what you can do and what you have done.  Many people take their laundry list straight out of a book.  I agree that many corporate websites can be largely fiction (but honestly, researching a company is not just visiting their website.  I'd do a Google search, ask about them from my work network, call and talk to a sales person or front line support, search the local newspaper, check with my local employment office etc etc).  Unfortunately, that just means that you have to do a little more leg work.  (Anyone who ever promised you that life would be easy was either lying or trying to scam you)

Resumes are also often largely fiction.  Sure, they might list <insert trendy skill here>.  Many of those listings mean "I've read about it online once".  A cover letter on the other hand gives you more insight into the actual applicant.  It's the advertisement for the resume.  The text that convinces me that I should spend the time to find out more about you.  The text that tells me what things you've done recently, that you are most proud of and that you consider most relevant to me.

Philo complains that this sounds like sucking up.  It seems to me that all initial relationship forming (of any sort) boils down to sucking up.  If you meet someone for the first time and you spend the entire time talking about you - that's generally considered a social faux-pas.  In my culture anyway, it's more well-mannered to find out about the other person so you can converse intelligently with them.  You look for common ground, and then you talk about the things you have in common.  You attempt to impress, amuse, whatever etc.

That, in my opinion, is the purpose of a cover letter. It's Phase One of forming a relationship with your (hopefully) new employer.

MaisOui
Saturday, May 10, 2003

Dear Mr Gosling, I'm sorry but the client specifically wants JDK 1.5 experience. What version of Java was it you designed?

One up to 1.3, I see, well, I know this client and they're very specific. You don't even have any Sun certification.


Sunday, May 11, 2003

In our culture, researching a person's background before saying hello is called "stalking" [grin]

I'm still foggy on why you think reading a page of text is easier than skimming a well-written resume.  (and please note that I'm not against trashing or tabling resumes that are not well-written)

Regarding the comment "I think job seekers want the process to be a bit too easy" - pot, kettle, black. Apparently YOU want the process to be a bit too easy - you're looking for automatic screeners to reduce your workload. Maybe you can toss all resumes that are in the wrong font, too?

I maintain that you are looking for ego-stroking. You want to believe that this resume is on your desk because the applicant just *has* to work for your company, instead of the idea that the applicant is looking to write code for money in a comfortable professional setting.

Why is that latter concept so very abhorrent to employers?

I just did some job searching doing the research thing. Honestly, I'm not sure how it's different for me to apply to:

a company looking for a .Net architect
or
a company selling COTS data mining software with a company whose personnel are known for creating data-marts with hundreds of millions of rows, yadda, yadda, yadda.

What matters to me are the people, the management, the work atmosphere, and the tech on the desktop. That doesn't come from a website or job listing, because oddly, I've never seen a company website that said "our company delights in death marches and micromanagement. We hold the prize for most Dilberts posted on cubicle walls, and our turnover rate would power Las Vegas. We consider it a mark of honor that our developers still have fifteen inch monitors and Pentium 2 desktops"



To: Man who wants to turn money into code.
From: Rumpelstilskin

Look, here's what I do, here's what I've done. Is this what you're looking for? Call me. Do you have a stick up your ass about the format of my cover letter? Best you keep looking, because we'll kill each other within a few weeks.

Kiss kiss,
Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Philo, this is what I think about the whole process -- it's to touch the applicant as much as possible.  By asking questions, you expose a greater surface area and maybe weird angles.  And as an applicant, it might be best to expose as many angles as possible.

Now, I think you're optimized for different things than I am.  You're more like a shark, automating things and not being much concerned about not-great working conditions.  Therefore there are certain things you don't care about proving about yourself, as you don't care about them doing certain things either.

About sucking up, I'm never willing to do that.  An interview for me is a dialogue where we try to figure out if it makes business sense to work together.  But I do like companies that come right out and ask you to jump through simple hoops, because others have invisible ones anyway.

Plus, we're a warlike species, and one of the hardest things to do is work all day next to some random fucker off the street. ;)

Tj
Sunday, May 11, 2003

I'm not sure I agree with this "research the company thoroughly and then fire off a cover letter" theory.
I'm just worried that if you spend a lot of time researching a particular job that's time that could have been spent applying for loads of jobs lost because you've concentrated on just one.
Sure, if it's a dream job that you really want, then maybe. But in many situations here agencies are used and you can't find anything out about the company they are representing which makes it a moot point.

For example, I'm looking for work as a technical author, and there are very few positions. So I'm also looking for other things that I have some experience with, such as Trainer, VB programmer, Tester/QA and Technical support. Besides this, I'm looking at positions not directly IT-related as the IT job market here in the UK seems so flat.

I agree with that point about applying for jobs/firing off resumes via email. It can be effectively like spamming; I worry that my resume is not being read. Maybe it is better to send letters via snail mail as they have more likelihood of being read?
On the other hand, letters will take much longer than email, so you miss out if they want to make a quick decision. So it's hard to know which is best.

I'm not sure how much I subscribe to the networking idea; sure if you're a contractor then it's justified. But if you're looking for permanent employment then constantly networking is maybe not worth the effort?

Bevan McCabe
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Philo,
                May I suggest the following for the text of your cover letter.  "Intransigent prima-donna, who can't be bothered to tell you what particular opening he is applying for, would like a job with in a pleasant environment catering to his every need; if you are rushing over yourself to hire him please read through his five page resume to see if any of it actually fits the job you are advertising.

                You don't seem to understand that when there is a surplus of applicants life is, if anything, harder for HR because they have to sift through so many more resumes. Your resume will be screened by one of two people. The HR/Secretary type person who won't have much idea about the alphabet soup that is your resume and who will jump at the cover letter that shows him/her where to look, or the professional developer who knows about the stuff but hasn't the time to read the resumes carefully because his job, and what he wants to do, is to write code.

                  Alternatively you could simply give up on applying for a coding job and ask for a job screening five page  resumes with no cover letter, since you think it's no great shakes. After all, doing anything more productive with your time would be "ego-stroking" wouldn't it?

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Bevan,
                    Forget snail mail. It will quite lilkely get lost before it even reaches the guy it's supposed to. And there are plenty like me who hate applications by snail mail or fac because they can't be filed on computer. I have a database of job applicants, relative links to a folder with all attachments, and every single email kept in one huge Outlook folder so I can access the whole conversation. Paper jsut doesn't fit in.

                  This "research the company" is often taken too far. You do need to do a little before the interview, but for the purpose of applying for the job, you just need to do enough to find out how to word your cover letter and what parts of your resume to stress. Is it a large company or a small company, is it in the software business or not, what exactly is the opening for. If you are applying to a small shop that produces custom applications for SME's then you will want to stress wider design and people skills than you would for a huge consultancy specializing in data mining or banking applications.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

My sister tells this story of when her car broke down upstate. Someone in the same car came up to her and offered to help. His exact words were:

"Red Jeep? Red Jeep!" pointing at her car and then his car in turn.

I think that when you "Research the company" you should be looking for obvious points of compatability. Then your cover letter should explain why you're the right person for the job.

As much as your Resume should speak for itself, a cover letter doesn't hurt. It's kind of like a restaurant where the food speaks for itself, but they still hang their framed Zagats review on the wall.

www.marktaw.com
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Stephen - that's exactly why my resume never exceeds two pages, and has a bulleted list of my primary skillset at the top. That's also why I'm still puzzled that those who review resumes would rather read a full page of prose than simply skim my resume - a ten-second glance will tell you whether or not I'm worth further reading.

You're getting closer to the issue, but still missing the point - this is about companies that want to turn money into code, the professionals who are able to do so, and the market in between. To maximize return on the $'s involved, you want an *efficient* market, and that means maximum return for effort expended.

So you want me to spend as little time as possible submitting resumes to companies, and you want the companies reviewing resumes to spend as little time as possible reviewing those resumes. Both sides of that equation argue AGAINST cover letters at all, and argue for a relatively standard resume along the lines of what I consider the "standard IT resume" - info at the top, then education, then a bulleted list of skills, then a list of job experience, relevant first. No more than one page if you're junior-mid, no more than two pages for anyone else.

For an efficient marketplace you want both sides using Monster, ComputerJobs and the like, and you want me firing off resumes, while you want your HR dept skimming the bulleted lists for a match. If you don't have an HR department, you want to be personally skimming the bulleted lists of skills.

And by the way, if I get called for an interview, THAT is when I do my research on the company.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

There is no such thing as a "standard IT resume" any more than there is a "standard IT job" or a "standard IT catch-all application".

If you don't specify on the cover letter exactly which job you applied for and where you saw it advertised, the odds are that your resume won't even reach the person who is supposed to be reading it.

Nobody is asking you to send a full page cover letter but apart from what I mentioned above you do need to outline the part of your resume that is most applicable to the job in question. This allows you to send the normal resume without having to do too much tailorization.

Your "skim the bulleted list of skills" is asking for the mindless acronym matching that most people here complain about.

They want somebody to develop a MS SQL Server app using Access as a front end, and your relevant experience was developing a Posgre cygwin app using VB6. Unless you point out in the cover letter tnat 95% of SQL is an ASCII standard, and that Access uses VBA which is to all intents and purposes the same as VB6 the HR secretary is quite likely to leave your CV out. If you are applying for a job doing an educational app for a school district then you will want to stress your experience in the requirements gathering stage for your last project. Apply for the data mining job and  you want to stress your implementation and technical skills.

And think of this; if you can't write a brief introduction to HR's requirements how are you ever going to be able to write software to a user's requirements.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Okay, perhaps this will help make my point clearer.
My resume (slightly munged, and forgive the HTML - it's a pull from a Word .doc):
http://www.saintchad.org/philo.htm
A cover letter I just threw together:
http://www.saintchad.org/cover.htm

Now I would honestly appreciate someone from the pro-cover letter camp explaining to me how it's easier to read through a hundred of the latter than to skim a hundred of the former.

If I spend the 1-2 hours it would take to craft that kind of cover letter for each job, I'd only be able to apply to 5-10% of the jobs I do now. So do some critical thinking:
1) Fewer resumes for you means you have a smaller talent pool to choose from (bad)
2) Those of us who are dedicated enough to put in creditable effort will be the ones you're getting fewer of. So you still get the scriptkiddie spammers, you just miss out on more professional coders. Is that a result you wish to encourage?

Food for thought,
Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Stephen, if your HR department is that good, double their pay tomorrow.

And I don't know about others, but even though I honestly believe I could pick up Java in nothing flat, I don't apply for Java jobs, period. So I don't have a need to explain why my background doesn't match the job I'm applying for.

Specify the job I'm applying for? That's what a subject line is for. :)

And I'm not saying I can't write a cover letter. I'm saying that when I'm looking at a hundred potential jobs, then I do not have TIME to write a hundred targeted researched cover letters when I only need the one job. :-)

Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Philo,
                If you want to write a cover letter just to take the fun out of people who are trying to advise you best of luck.

                  You asked people who spend their time reading CV's to tell you what they look for and we have. If you don't want to take our advice but prefer to call us ego-strokers,  fair enough.

                    Your resume has loads of faults of presentation, but it's well past my bedtime so if you want a full description of what's wrong with it you'll have to wait until tomorrow.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Philo,
                  You might only want one job but you are not going to get it by sending off that resume a hundred times.

                  Are you applying for a job like the last one setting up a legal process system. If not what the hell is your doctorate in law doing on the top of your CV? In fact as neither of your degrees are IT orientated stick them further down the CV.

                    You're applying for a job that requires security clearance? If not why on earth do we have your full military record? As far as I can tell nothing prior to 1995 is relevant to your employment in IT so don't give details.

                    Even the order of the skills needs changing according to the job. Applying for a DBA job? Then put that skill first and put all sys admin work you have done at the top of the job descriptions. Applying for a programmers job - different again.

                  Employers like to see a pattern in your life, so put on the cover letter a short prose description saying that you originally got a degree in electical engineering but that in the navy you got involved in designing and running databases and applications and this fascinated you and so you decided to follow this up when you returned to civilian life.

                  Let me tell you something else. People miss the most obvious things in CV's. So you say the most important things two or three times over in the hope that one of the three will get home.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

This has gotten far more adversarial than I intended.

My *intent* was to simply debate the "directed, researched cover letter" crowd on the best way of screening for job candidates, and to point out that time is money on BOTH sides of the equation, and I believe it's in everyone's best interests to make the entire relationship as efficient as possible.

My cover letter was not meant to make fun of anyone. While it's not what I would actually send, I think it's close enough to the mark to make the point that reading and comprehending prose takes longer than skimming a well-written resume for content. Mr. Bigbootey can read through the page to see how I present my skills, or he can skim the resume and think "Hmmm... working .Net experience, working Oracle experience, and a military officer - probably worth talking to this guy"

Of course, if he's working through HR it would be "find me someone with .Net, SQL Server, and Oracle experience"

I'll be happy to hear feedback on my resume, thanks!

Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

---"Stephen, if your HR department is that good, double their pay tomorrow. "----

No, they probably won't know anything about VBA or ASCII SQl. You could have told them that programming TEOFL in Kanji script was the same thing and they still would have accepted your application. It will be the technical guy who will weed the BS out.

But if you don't tell HR your qualifications are the same as what they are looking for your CV will never get to the tech guy.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Okay, Stephen, you win - you DO need cover letters. I had no idea an employer could need such hand-holding.

"Neither of your degrees are IT oriented"
I have seen two specific degrees ever listed as a prerequisite for an IT job: BSCS and BSEE. I've got a BSEE. What do you think *drives* computers, anyway?
And since the BSEE is at the top (since it's often a major screening factor) then the law degree goes in the education section as well. It's one line, and I think it makes me stand out from the crowd. :)

"Nothing prior to 1995 is relevant to your employment in IT so don't give details" - uh, if you're looking for a team lead you don't think listing leadership details is important? How about someone who is used to making decisions on their own?

Again, my point is that when I apply to a company, I'm not necessarily applying for "a" job - I'm offering my services in any fashion they may need them. I can think of several interviews and one job that were not related to the reason I submitted the resume.

Philo

Philo
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Philo,
                  The cover letter is atrociously written and the fact that you say "threw it together" shows your opinion of it. And what is a NewIT company doing with both SQL server and Oracle. One for the even days of the week and one for the odd? You don't "throw cover letters" together, you think very, very carefully about them.

                    If your cover letter was well written it would be easier to read than the resume alone. Just get rid of the buzz words and brown nosing. You have two basic points to make. You have four years experience in designing and implementing MS database solutions, eight years software experience and inter-personal skills learnt in the Navy. Say that and be done with it. Also you must state your present position and why you want to leave and when you will be able to start.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Dear Philo,
                As far as designing a database goes I don't honestly care it's a water wheel that drives a computer. But I do see your point in putting the Electical Engineering degree in. So keep it - and leave out the juris doctorate altogether. You're looking for employers impressed by military service - they hate lawyers. And people impressed by a doctorate in law hate gung-ho military types so as you can't leave out your ten years in the navy leave out the other.

                    Even if ten years in the military is considered to give leadership and personal skills (and I personally think it normally merely imbues a false sense of self-importance) nobody wants to know the full details including an itinerary in enough detail to get Gerardo Rivera thrown out of Iraq. It's the fact that you've been in the Navy that is important so just give the ten years as in the Navy, with a special entry for the last three years. If you are applying for a job where some of your previous navy experience was necessary then stress that and telescope the other.

                Detail what is relevant and compress the rest. And as what is relevant for one job is not going to be relevant for another, then you need to change the CV slightly each time.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, May 11, 2003

Stephen, I can see you have a very narrow view of the type of person you are trying to hire. That's fine - you know your needs best. I do not have the luxury of interviewing everyone who will read my resume, so I do what I can, which is to explain who I am on a piece of paper.

If some IT purist seems to think that military experience is worthless or that for some reason a JD should exclude me from consideration, so be it.

But if for every ten people with IT blinders I get one person who can understand the relevance of military leadership to a high-pressure job, or why the logical reasoning taught in law school might help in high-level design, or that a diverse background will give them a consultant that might work well with various people from differing backgrounds, then I feel it's worth it.

I'd rather work for someone who appreciates ALL my skills than someone who feels I should hide the less traditional aspects of my background.

And since this approach has kept the phone ringing so far, then I hope you don't mind if I don't change anything. :-)

Philo

Philo
Monday, May 12, 2003

Dear Philo,
                  If you don't want to change everything because it works why did you bother to waste everybody's time by asking for advice?

Stephen Jones
Monday, May 12, 2003

Stephen said: "This "research the company" is often taken too far."

I couldn't agree more.  It's not like you have to spend hours and hours.  Spend ten minutes researching the company and you're already ahead of 99% of the applicants applying to us...

Bevan - networking is the absolute most important part of a job search as far as I'm concerned.  Forget sending the snail mail (even if it's in a non-standard format, it is still spam...).  Many companies trash resumes submitted outside their published channels (if this exists).  We tend to trash them unopened.

The purpose behind networking if you are employed is that if you suddenly become unemployed, you will know who to call so they know that you are available.  Remember how I said that for every position we've had so far, we've had a bunch of qualified candidates in mind?  The folks relying on sending their (standard) resume out to random companies have a serious disadvantage when competing against those who've kept in touch throughout the last five years.

Philo - in terms of kettle calling etc, my point wasn't that I want the process to be easy from my end, but that I'm not likely to give your resume more than ten-fifteen minutes of my time (and that's generous).  Most job seekers (based on my conversations, the resumes we get, and the research I've read) tend to create a standard resume that they then send out to a list of potential employers.  They'll spend a few hours gathering the email addresses or snail mail addresses and then fire something off.

My point is that before I will even consider spending the full fifteen minutes on *you*, you'd better show me why I should bother, rather than pick one of the other 20 random ones that have come in on any given day.  (Remember - the 20 or so that we receive are to a company that has never advertised a position, and never yet hired outside our "network").  We are small and relatively unknown.  And we get 20 resumes a day!  They are not all throw-a-ways either - many have sufficient experience/skills etc that would justify an interview.  But I can't possibly interview even half of the potentially qualified candidates - there aren't enough hours in the day.  It's also not like I "owe" anyone a job.  So if you wanted to work for me, is spending a few minutes to craft a targetted cover letter really too much to ask?  Again, if I compare this to the consulting side - we have spent literally hours on proposals and preliminary meetings etc for possible jobs.  Often, this pays off handsomely.  Sometimes it goes nowhere.  If we took your attitude into the process, we'd only ever be able to get involved in contracts where someone else had already done all that work (and at a lower rate).

Looking at your cover letter, I wouldn't get past the first paragraph.  (It's about double the length of the usual cover letters we receive, and those are often slightly too long). For those who are interested in writing a good cover letter - follow all the "business writing" guidelines they tout in school these days.  That means short sentences and not many of them.  I don't have time to read a whole page of blah blah, Philo, even if I wanted to.

I could say more about the cover letter and resume.  Maybe later if I get a brain freeze and need entertainment. :)

MaisOui
Monday, May 12, 2003

Hi Philo, you're getting some excellent advice from Stephen Jones here.

I agree with your comment about the BSEE degree. The sad reality is that some HR people don't know what EE is.

The Jurisprudence Doctorate ( is this correct?) is impressive. One reason for leaving that off is that it would intimidate many middle managers.

Philo, I'm wondering if you're aiming for the right jobs. You might be good for a research-oriented project in legal AI. There are some around.

One thing you might try is bullet pointing your accomplishments in the various Navy assignments. It would look really good.


Monday, May 12, 2003

I had my Navy experience bulleted in the beginning. As my IT experience has grown, I've dropped bullets from the earlier and less relevant work. I might look at switching the prose to bullets, tho. Thanks!
Philo

Philo
Monday, May 12, 2003

"Looking at your cover letter, I wouldn't get past the first paragraph.  (It's about double the length of the usual cover letters we receive, and those are often slightly too long). For those who are interested in writing a good cover letter - follow all the "business writing" guidelines they tout in school these days.  That means short sentences and not many of them.  I don't have time to read a whole page of blah blah, Philo, even if I wanted to."

Now I'm definitely confused. Looks like you want about two short paragraphs. Others in this discussion have indicated they want
a) Evidence that I'm writing to *your* company
b) Evidence that I know what your company does
c) An explanation of what I can do for you
d) Specific relevance of my experience to the job I'm applying for (while not locking myself into a specific job)

In two paragraphs. With short sentences. Written well, which means introduction, discussion, conclusion.

Maybe some of you guys should just post what you consider to be "perfect" cover letters?

Thanks,
Philo

Philo
Monday, May 12, 2003

Stephen - I wasn't asking for advice. I was asking why all you guys are wasting your time with cover letters.

Philo

Philo
Monday, May 12, 2003

Philo, you aren't supposed to be writing your final thesis :)  Simply capture the attention of your audience, so that they will devote the time to actually reading your resume.

I'm not sure why you think that reading cover letters is a waste of time;  it takes a great deal less time to weed based on cover letters than it does based on a resume.  Most people find it more difficult to skim through a page (or two pages) of bulleted acronyms than a couple of paragraphs.

You mention that the result of requiring applicants to do research is that there will be fewer qualified applicants.  Based on our experience doing it both ways, I respectfully disagree.  Our signal/noise ratio has become much better as a result of implementing submission requirements.  I can't remember the last time I read a resume that was completely inappropriate, whereas before implementing our criteria I was wasting several hours a week on them.  The actual number of "qualified" applicants has remained about the same.  (Actually, for a while it dramatically increased, but I believe the job market was responsible for that more than anything)

In the few paragraphs that make up a cover letter, I do look for evidence that the applicant knows about my company and what we do, and an explanation of what you can do for me.  I'm not so hung up on specific experience, presumably I'll get a flavour of your perceived abilities from the section where you explain what you can do for me.  The cover letter isn't supposed to replace the resume...

Taking a second look at your cover letter, I think it is not just the length that would be daunting (since it is actually not that much longer than one of the more memorable/better ones I received).  As a rough guideline, I would aim for 150-200 words.  Keep it to three or four paragraphs - ideally an intro, the body and a sentence or two conclusion.

Really, cover letter writing is similar to writing an abstract.  By reading an abstract, you should be able to get a sense of what the research is about and whether it is worth tracking it down and reading it.  Same with a cover letter.

Your cover letter is also a wee bit on the pretentious side.  Leadership is good, but I'm not sure I'd hire someone who is seems to be angling to keep everyone on the run at my new organization.  I'm thinking of Dilbert cartoons.  Everyone wants to be the pointy haired boss, but really, when I'm looking to hire someone, I want them to *do* stuff as well.  To use an analogy: in a hockey team, many players have a "leadership" role, but they hopefully also shoot the puck.  Don't get me wrong - I want to see leadership mentioned if that's your strength - but if you beat me over the head with nothing but, I wonder if you can actually contribute anything.  Also, "leadership" is somewhat fuzzy.  What do you want to do?  Be hired out to project manage for clients? Manage the helpdesk?

From the cover letter, you sound like a "full-steam ahead, charge!" kind of person that may not plan things out adequately.  You even emphasize how you are used to leading in situations where you have "minimal" experience.  Then you emphasize your relevant experience.  What are you trying to get across to me?

I'm also confused by the Navy reference.  Aside from the fact that the sentence seems to be just "there", my gut reaction was that either you are angling to pick up a job from another ex-military type that you hope is reading the letter, or that you're just integrating into civilian life.

When I actually looked at your resume, I find out that your navy experience is five years ago.  Since I'm not ex-military, the angle is wasted on me.  Am I to infer that you haven't done much of note / relevance since? (The cover letter should only talk about recent stuff!  Unless there is something really important to the job about your out-of-date experience)

Personally, I think that what you list on your resume should not go back more than ten years at the most.  You should state number of years experience in the industry, with skill x etc, but honestly, I don't care where you worked fifteen years ago.  And anything more than five years ago should be dramatically reduced.  For instance, if you left the navy experience at all (and I understand that some would find it a plus rather than just not caring at all), just stick the titles and the dates.  The specifics are irrelevant and come across as resume padding unless you are applying to a specific job that would require a navy background.  The actual skills should be in the skills section anyway, so you aren't losing anything by condensing it.  The recent stuff, on the other hand, should be given more "meat".

Eg. Developed ASP.Net applications for B2B eCommerce application.  This is all buzz that tells me nothing.  What kind of application(s)?  How big?  You talk about being a leader, but then don't mention at all if you were in a leadership role.

Also, I don't have anything against contractions, but something about the way you use them in combination with the quasi-intellectual tone had me raising my eyebrows.

Finally, this is just a nit-pick, but the recent experience also portrays you as a job hopper.  I had the impression that you were a consultant (something that really doesn't come across), in which case I would structure that experience differently.

Possibly - date - present, High priced consultant with experience in blah blah blah.

Projects include:

Date  Company Description
Date Company Description.

Okay, Back to Work for me...

MaisOui
Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Philo, something like this:

Dear Mr Bloggs

I would like to apply for your position HR1234 as advertised in The Times of 12 May 2003.

I have six years experience designing and developing 3-tier applications using Visual Basic, SQL Server, Oracle and XML. I have very good knowledge of law firm and professional firm environments, and also of formal processes.

Prior to that I served for ten years with the United States Navy, including serving as assistant to the American Naval Attaché in Cairo, Egypt, and serving as anti-submarine warfare officer on the USS Carr.

I am available from next Monday.


Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Philo, if I might add, I think someone with your background and talent needs to be careful in aiming for positions.

Your background equips you for a program manager-type role. You also have good development and design expertise, seem to like development and, quite reasonably, want development roles.

The problem you face is that many companies treat development as mutually exclusive of other talent, including management. This will cause frustration for someone like you, who would have more management and strategic expertise than the managers you would typically be reporting to.

The roles you should be seeking, in my humble and possibly wrong, view, are:

a. strategic review, program management in government organisations, preferably with a strong development component

b. troubleshooting assignments in your own right, in which case operate as a premium service, not another developer

c. program management in a technical development environment, ideally with an elite software or systems developer

d. research project at a university combining your law background

e. development and marketing of some package in your own right, targeted to large organisations


Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Philo,

ONE MAJOR POINT TO MAKE....

Just remember, most of the people you expect to hire you are in a low supply / high demand situation.  In other words, if you want what they have to offer; you will have to do what THEY WANT.  That is just how things work. 

These people are answering your question and you are arguing with them.  If you don't want the answer, don't ask the question.  This could be one large reason your job search is apparently frustrating.

Just trying to help (really), so please do not take this as a personal attack.

Ray
Monday, May 17, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home