Dec 222010

Every time I read a cover letter I find my self scoffing at best and throwing things at the wall in the worst case.

There seems to exist a wide-spread and thoroughly  mistaken belief  that cover letters are some kind of essay contest,  whose winner will get the best job, confounded by the equally groundless idea that the more you write the better grade you’ll get.

Most of what people write is a list of how terrific they are and all the things they have done. Some wax philosophical and others poetic. Frankly, My Dear, from a professional standpoint, I don’t give a damn. Actually, I do give a damn. I detest the pages of self-congratulatory bullets and have a very hard time warming to  the people who write them, reminding myself that they just don’t know any better. With that in mind, it’s perhaps a good time to educate a few of you. Ready?

The purpose of a cover letter is to convey important information you would not put in your resume. Basta.  It should do so tersely .  It should not resemble your eulogy. It is not a recommendation written by you about you, who we all know are the least subjective person on the planet on that particular topic.  If you want to praise yourself, write your own obituary – not a cover letter.

It should state  in a few pregnant sentences (i.e. tersely) – why you are interested in my business or my  job.  It can tell me why you are leaving your job or moving  or specify just what you want to do. It should not contain more than three paragraphs. Four at the most. It might explain why you are approaching me. It’s a letter, remember, not a flier. It should not begin, “Dear Sir”, since a) I am a woman and b) I have a name. Letters beginning with, “To whom it may concern,” generally get thrown out, since nobody is concerned about them.

Here’s an example:

Dear Mrs Jones (To the management of Bob’s Burger Bar/ To the recruiter a Sams Chef Stable)

Our mutual friend Jim Francis referred me to you/I ran across your web site and saw that you have a position open for a senior director of purchasing, which interests me greatly.  As chef of DoWop Diners I have had full product acquisition responsibilities and command both Windows and Apple resource administration software.

Although I am currently happily employed in Cleveland, my wife has an attractive job offer in the San Francisco Bay Area,  so I will be moving there in June at the latest. If an earlier opportunity should arise, I would move out first. My current employers are aware of this decision and are available for references / I have not yet informed my current employers of this decision, but I want to provide them with  at least 4 weeks notice.

I can best be reached by message on my mobile phone, 555 555 5555.  I am impressed with what I read regarding Joe’s House of Burgers, especially your commitment to quality, and I would appreciate an opportunity to speak with you about the job above or other opportunities you might have available.

Joe Dokes.

Now that’s a good cover letter. Joe has something to tell me. His resume will speak for the size and nature of the places he worked and what he did there. He isn’t telling me he is a great anything, but mentioning the specific points which might interest me for a specific job.  He knows who I am or he at least knows the company I work for.  I will probably call him. The restaurant manager who reads this will take note.

Obviously Joe tells  a unique story.  You can have a different story – you worked in California and want to return, you are seeking something in a larger organization because you want to hone your volume management skills – you are selling a successful restaurant due to issues with the landlord. Fine. It means something.

“I am a chef with 29  years  of highly acclaimed experience” does not.

If you don’t have a story, don’t write one. Just say that you noticed the company has a position open that would interest you, and that you’d appreciate a call. (Never ask them to call ASAP. It smacks of arrogant foolishness.) Philosophical musings on the shape of todays economy or the industry are out of place: “In times like this it behooves us to think beyond the box and reach for the stars.”  Oy Veh.  Again, it is not an essay.

Keep your cover letter simple, and keep it short, or just write a couple of sentences in the email you attach it to.  It’s the only effective thing to do.

  3 Responses to “How to write a great cover letter – how not to write a rotten one”

Comments (3)
  1. Thank you for taking the time and showing me what a real cover letter for a Culiarian. I have no experience in the kitchen so I need to make this exemplary and professional.

  2. Why you should not write the same cover letter to everyone
    Received today:
    “I would value the opportunity to part of Chef’s Professional Agency team. My professional experience within the industry is quite extensive and diverse”
    Now aside from the typo, which I can hardly fault considering my track record (but which he sent out to maybe a hundred people) this guy would be applying for perhaps a data entry job. He hasn’t got a clue. Not only that, pardon my pique, he has just shown me that he thinks I am a bulk commodity and that he can get my attention by sending me a bulk letter. Silly chef.