CHS Careerist: Cover Letter Advice

May 1, 2013

Dear Belle,

I am not sure if you addressed this specifically in one of your career advice posts, but I was wondering to what extent a cover letter can help or hurt your chances at making it to the short list of being interviewed for a job on the Hill. Were there certain aspects in the many cover letters you have read that made you cringe or that jumped out at you and made you look a bit closer at the following resume? 

Sincerely,
Meghan

As this Wall Street Journal article explains, how important a cover letter is depends on the employer.  I know hiring managers and Chiefs of Staff who decode them like treasure maps, and others who never even open the attachment.
But to be on the safe side, I would always include one.

When I’m looking at a resume, I always read the cover letter.  I view it as a writing sample and a good indicator of an applicant’s judgment (what do you think is important enough to mention?). So here are a few things I look for in a cover letter.

Is your cover letter a form letter?  Or did you customize it for this job posting?

Writing cover letters can be a hassle, especially if you are applying for multiple positions, but resorting to a lifeless form letter is never a good idea.  If I’m reading your cover letter closely, you should give me something interesting and informative to read.

Demonstrate your interest in the position, your knowledge of the job/employer and give me a few brief remarks on your qualifications (I can read the rest in your resume).  These are the essentials.

Personalizing your cover letter is important.  Don’t just regurgitate facts; tell me something that I can’t read on your resume.  Talk about professional traits like being able to connect with customers/voters or having great phone etiquette.  Mention how where you’re from or a personal experience (volunteering, a hobby, a class) made you interested in the career path you’ve chosen.

Just give me a little peek into who you are and I’ll usually become invested enough in your story to ask you in for an interview.

If your skills don’t match the qualifications, don’t try to hide it.  Instead, explain why you would be the best choice for the position despite this disparity.

For example, if the posting asks for five years of experience and you only have three, talk about what skills and experiences prepared you for the position you’re applying for.  You can’t conceal your flaws (remember, I have your resume), so inoculate against your weaknesses by acknowledging them and re-focusing attention on your strengths.

Keep it short.  I want to read a cover letter; I don’t want to read a Tolstoy novel.  One page is generally long enough, and if you can give me three well written paragraphs, I’m a happy girl.

Don’t plagiarize your cover letter.  You would think this would go without saying, but you would be wrong.  Copy and past a few lines of an applicant’s cover letter into Google–and if my experiences are any indication–three times out of 10, it will be copied nearly word for word from a free resume site.

If you can’t write three original paragraphs about why you want a job that will pay you tens of thousands of dollars per year, I shudder to think what kind of employee you would be.  And since so many of today’s jobs (esp. on Capitol Hill) require strong writing skills, you’ve proven that you don’t have that skill.

Never mention salary in your cover letter.  You don’t ask a man deeply personal questions on a first date, so don’t talk to a potential employer about money in a cover letter.  I read even a mention of salary in a cover letter, and I relocate it to the bottom of the pile.  It shows poor judgment and reveals something negative about an applicant’s character.  If an employer wants to talk about salary, they’ll ask for a separate list of salary requirements.

These are just a few of the things that always caught my eye.  If you need more advice on resumes and cover letters, there are two places you MUST visit. Go to Ask a Manager for all the instruction you could ever need.  And visit Evil HR Lady, your spirit guide through the hiring experience.

If you handle hiring for your Boss or your company, please feel free to add your thoughts to the comments.  Everyone has different things that they love and hate, and while you can’t please everyone, I think you can hit the high points and avoid most of the pitfalls.

Ask The Edit, Style

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  1. H says:

    I interview and hire interns in a Hill office. Many of the resumes I see have plenty of volunteer work and school activities listed, but not much real work experience. If an applicant has never had a job, which seems to be the case for a fair amount of internship hopefuls, it’s important for them to describe an experience that makes them prepared for the position or provide evidence of a strong connection with my boss’s policy efforts and mission in the House.

    • Belle says:

      Agreed.

      First off, I don’t know how people get to be 20+ years old without ever having held a job, but like you, I see a lot of resumes with zero or precious little work history.

      Second, I think you need to do what you recommend. Talk about how the responsibilities you shouldered as a volunteer or club leader gave you skills that are applicable to the job.

  2. Anna says:

    How timely! I am writing a cover letter today. You have inspired me to put extra effort into it, thank you!

  3. Meghan says:

    Thank you for the advice! This is wonderful help! When it comes to addressing cover letters to a specific person, what is the protocol for Hill jobs? Is it best to contact the office and ask?

    • Belle says:

      I don’t think it’s a bad idea to search the Internet for the chief of staff’s name. Pretty easy to find on Legistorm or just through Google.

  4. Anon says:

    Thanks for this! I’m applying for a position now where I don’t have experience with their particular (micro-specialized) topic, but have tons of other meaningful experience, so I’ve been toying with how to address that. My draft right now just comes out and says, “I don’t have X, but I do have A, B and C.” Here’s hoping!

  5. Chinarette says:

    +100 for the Ask a Manager referral. She is such a great resource.

  6. Robin says:

    How would you then respond to job postings that outright ask to see your salary needs in the cover letter? I agree that money shouldn’t be discussed that early in the process, but I’ve seen that request multiple times and I don’t know what to do with it.

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