Cover Letter Best Practices

a 10 Minute Zoom with 52 Limited, Portland, Oregon

Elaine [00:00:01] Good morning, Heather. Hi. How are you doing? I’m doing pretty good this morning. And yourself?

Heather [00:00:06] I’m doing great.

Elaine [00:00:08] Good, good, good, good. I’m really excited about having you on 10 minutes and 52 today. Cover letters are tricky and can be very hard, so I’m very excited to welcome all of our guests this morning to 10 minutes with 52. My name’s Elaine Share. I’m the community engagement manager. 52 LTD is a creative and tech staffing agency. 10 minutes to 52 was created to support our talent pool with tips, tricks, and best practices to help you find your dream job. Today we have Heather McBride, who’s had over 25 years of experience in this space. She is the founder and senior resume writer at In Clarity 360 and today she’ll be sharing with us a formula to help us write the best cover letter we can write. Heather, thank you so much for joining us today.

Heather [00:01:08] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’ve been looking forward to this. So I just should just go right into it, right?

Elaine [00:01:15] Yes. I will say, if folks you have questions, please feel free to put them in the chat or in the Q&A box. You might want to get a piece of paper and a pen. Heather’s going to give us a formula of sorts to help us write that wonderful cover letter.

Heather [00:01:32] Okay. All right. So this is something that I’ve been fine tuning over the years, watching hiring leaders respond to the resumes that I give them from across the nation. And like I said, I’ve been fine tuning and I wanted to share it with you today. So I’m going go to the next slide here. What we’re going to talk about is that big question that I always hear:

  1. Do they really read it?
  2. Relevant highlights
  3. How to change the discussion with your documents when you’re in the interview? and
  4. The cover letter template.

So let’s see here. This formula has been very effective for my clients, and I get a lot of feedback from it. It’s fairly simple and it addresses the employer’s needs and how you’ll meet the needs. So let’s go to the next one. I want to say, first of all, that your resume and your cover letter is not about being humble. It’s not the time to be humble. It’s the time for you to brag because nobody else is going to do it for you and you’re up against competition. If you show them and tell them what you’ve accomplished in your career, then they get to have a better visual of you.

The question: yes, they do read it. And even if they don’t, why would you want to take the chance about it? I’m going to move this little box. Hold on a second. I have to move the box to see the text. So it gives you the opportunity to show you have communication skills that you know how to write. It reflects your interest and enthusiasm for the job. They want to know that you really care about their company and the job that you’re applying for. It is also an opportunity for you to eliminate some concerns and red flags that may be in your resume. Maybe there’s gaps in the employment. Maybe you’re changing jobs. Maybe there’s something in your resume that you know will be a question so you can handle that in the cover letter. It also is a chance for you to highlight specific accomplishments that you’ve accomplished in your career that’s relevant to the company needs. And the word relevant is really, really important. I see a lot of cover letters when I’m editing them that have information that the employer doesn’t really care about. So you want to make it really relevant so that you ensure more that they will read it.

Also, I’d like to say that, you know, when when I would get down to two or three top candidates, maybe because I had so many that I only read the resume when I was doing my sourcing. But when I got to the top two or three candidates, I would go back and look at the cover letter because that’s the time that I could spend more time with your documents. So just I wanted to reiterate how important a cover letter is.

Again make everything on your cover letter relevant. If that’s the only thing you get from this presentation, relevancy is is key. You don’t want to lose them. You don’t want them to get reader fatigue halfway through your cover letter that they don’t even get to your resume. They want to see what they care about.

So let’s see here, the sections of the cover letter. There’s five sections that I want to go over and then I’m going to go over each one with a specific sample. And let me check here. This particular cover letter was donated by somebody that I taught the formula to that got the interview with a highly competitive university. And, you know, there are hundreds of people applying for jobs at this university and and she got the interview. So I wanted to thank her for sharing her sample with us.

In the first paragraph, we’re going to talk about how you can de-construct the job posting to talk about what they are interested in and the skill sets they’re looking for. In the second paragraph, it’s going to be about how you meet the needs of the first paragraph. The third paragraph is a bullet section, actually, where you can plug and play your accomplishments and your skill sets and your background that are important to them, those that are in the job posting. The fourth paragraph is talking about what you might need to explain, maybe it’s a red flag or an elephant in the room, so that when you get to the interview, you’re not having to explain yourself. Then, the fifth paragraph is simply ‘the ask’.

All right, so again, the first paragraph is about the employer. I know many of you see these cover letters or you’ve written them where you’re like, “I saw your posting on indeed and I am very interested in applying”. Well, that’s about you and everybody knows you’re interested in applying. So a unique approach is to de-construct their job posting and say this.

“Dear Hiring Team” – and I suggest Dear Hiring Team instead of the Dear Mr. or  Dear Mrs. – Dear Hiring Team works. “Your new admissions counselor needs to have depth of experience and community outreach with diverse cultures, event presentations and preparations, representing organizations, arranging tours and meeting deadlines”. That language is from the job posting. Now, you might not want to take their language exactly, but it’s talking about what they’re looking for.

“This professional should also have a strong background in working independently, supporting the success of others, serving adult and youth populations, personal communication, meeting deadlines, and an understanding of syntactical, syntactical proficiency”. This is a linguist. “Last but not least, your admissions counselor should also have experience assisting in decision making processes and conducting information sessions. I believe I’m your candidate”.

If you de-construct the job posting and highlight the top three or four things that are important for them and rewrite their sentences, this paragraph says, “Oh my gosh, she knows what we want”. So this is an easy way to apply it for your first paragraph.

The second paragraph is about you and how you meet specifically the points that you had in your first paragraph. They can be qualitative, quantitative, they can be years of experience, they can be a little summarization even from your resume. Don’t be afraid to hijack language from your resume. Redundancy is okay with the cover letter. So here’s the sample for a second paragraph.

“My experience includes supporting the needs of diverse demographics, presenting and mediating meetings, conducting information sessions, staying detail/goal-oriented and managing data. In addition, I have traveled extensively and have the ability willingness to continue for the assigned role. Highlights of my background, as outlined in my attached resumé, include…”

So this paragraph can be short and succinct, or it can be longer and it can talk about, specifically, it can say, “My experience includes ten years of admissions counseling at a competitive university in another state”. It can talk about “I’ve led teams”. It can talk about sales. It can talk about “quantitative percentages or dollars”. It can talk about anything that you want. That just kind of highlights the first paragraph.

So then we go to the bullet point section that I call Plug and Play. That’s the third paragraph and it’s about relevant highlights. You can hijack sentences and bullet points from your resume. You can reword it or you can use the exact same language. It all depends if you’re on short on time; hijack it exactly. Put it in the bullet points. So this particular sample, she’s doing more qualitative bullet points because she doesn’t have admissions/counseling experience and it’s all about being interpersonal, diversity, working with different cultures, and being organized. So these are her bullet points. She’s planning and organizing data. She’s working with diverse populations. She’s meeting quick deadlines. She’s a proactive networker that can work with both youth and adults, and she’s motivated to achieve success at an organizational level and advance other people’s goals.

These are things that she intuitively believes or knows from her own experience working with counselors in university. I want to say here that this is where you can also put quantitative results. Like, if you’re a salesperson or you’re a leader with a company and you have these awesome accomplishments, you know, you can do a little summarization, “I did this for this company” or “I took this territory and I grew it 50% in one year”. You can put awards there. You can put specific software skills that they’re looking for, for I.T. or programmers, you can put things there again, even if it’s in your resume.

Elaine [00:11:58] Even if it’s word for word.

Heather [00:12:00] Even if it’s word for word. I mean, seriously. I mean redundancy, you know, I think it is helpful. I mean, if it’s written well and there aren’t grammar typos, and that makes them go to the resume, then go for it.

For the fourth paragraph now, this is an optional paragraph and it’s about necessary explanations to remove red flags and to add any concerns that you might have. For instance, say, like, if you’re not very experienced and you just got out of school, you want to say, “Hey, I just got my degree and I’m ready to hit the ground running”. Or maybe you went on a sabbatical. Oh, this is the big one for this year: layoffs. It’s COVID related. You know, people aren’t even asking why, right now, why you don’t have a job. So you can even say, you know, “I loved my job. But unfortunately, due to the impact of COVID on the economy, they had to lay off 20% of our company”. You know, this isn’t the time and… I’m going to hold off on what I was just going to say.

Let’s go to an example.

“After I obtained my degree, I thought it would be a great experience to teach English as a second language in Spain to gain exposure to another language and culture. I believe the experience I gained has enhanced my ability to work one on one with students from around the world”.

So she was out of school for a while and wanting to get back into university, and she explained why there was a gap in her employment. Now, one of the things that some people will put on their cover letter is if they had an illness, family or medical leave. And that, unfortunately, is a red flag for human resources people. They’re worried that the illness may be continued or whatever. But what you can say is, even if it’s you, you just say, “a family member had an illness, but that’s resolved and nd I’m ready to hit the ground running again”. But don’t say it was you. It’s not their business.

And that’s where I come to this. The cover letter, resume, and interview are not a confessional. It’s not the time to get in the little booth with the priest and tell everything about you because you want to be honest. You know, I say to people that employers aren’t going to tell you about the punk in the cubicle next to where you’re going to be sitting that’s been running people off. You know, this is the time for you to figure out how you can put a positive spin on anything. So that’s why I’m like, being honest is important, but it’s not about putting it all out there before the interview; you don’t have to worry about talking about it. I think that it’s a fear-based decision to put personal things in cover letters that will be considered a red flag.

Okay, so the fifth paragraph is simply about asking for the interview and you don’t have to get all creative with it. You can just say just say something like this.

“Based on the experience and background outline above, and in my resume, I submit myself as a candidate for the Admissions Counselor. I can be reached at (xxx) xxx-xxxx for a telephone or in-person interview”and/or you can say in Zoom now. “I look forward to sharing how my background can support the success of student recruitment and admissions counseling for the university.”

So what you’re saying with that last sentence is I still care about you, Employer. I want to be part of your team, I want to support you rather than “I’m going to be the best candidate that you’ve ever had” kind of language. You take it back to them.

So let’s see here. A very important point that I wanted to talk about, and not so much about cover letters, but just the overall marketing documents because that’s what they are. The cover letter and resume are about getting the interview. The interview is about getting the job.

I have a lot of people call me and say I need help on my resume and my cover letter because I’m just I’m not getting job offers. And I’ll ask, “are you getting interviews?” And they’ll say, yes. Well, a lot of them will say yes. I’m like, “Well, how many?” They’ll say, I’ll go a little deeper with them, “how many interviews are you getting?”

“I’m getting a lot of interviews. I’m just not getting the offer.” And I say, “you know, it’s not your documents if you’re getting the interviews, it’s something about what’s happening inside the interview”.

So I want to take it back to the cover letter. If you put in your cover letter something personal that’s a red flag that you haven’t addressed in a way neutralizes it. In the interview, you set yourself up for explaining things rather than “let’s talk about my skills and how I’m going to fit into this team”. You can use that cover letter to neutralize concerns and refocus them. Sometimes in the interview, that’s what’s happening; you’ve given them too much information and now they’re trying to pick you apart to make sure that that their concerns are taken care of. Let’s keep them focused on your skills, your experience, and what you have to offer them.

Elaine [00:17:52] Which friends we’ll do another session, another 10 minutes with 52 on interviewing at the end before the end of the year. So no worries.

Heather [00:18:00] Awesome. So I put this slide in here because I thought maybe we’d be handling this a little differently. But Elaine will send you the word doc and/or a .docx of the sample that I just outlined. I’ll have it in just a regular word format for you so that you will have the formula sample cover letter. You can contact Elaine if you want to get that.

I want to say one more thing before I take some questions, and that is the tip of the day. I thought about this this morning, and I added it.

Heather [00:18:41] A lot of times because of what we’re doing with technology, people will attach their cover letter and their resume and then type a separate email; copy and paste your cover letter into the email. That way you don’t have to come up with another form of communication and you have a better chance of them reading your cover letter because it’s the email text and you know, you wouldn’t have the header or whatever. You would just say, “Dear hiring team…” and put that cover letter in there. Also, when you’re applying online, sometimes it doesn’t allow you to upload the cover letter, but it’s got a note box and you copy and paste that in there too, instead of coming up with another form of communication. So I just wanted to add that because I’ve I’ve found that to be very helpful for people.

Elaine [00:19:30] What would you suggest as like the subject line, maybe a reference to the title or requisition number when you’re sending that email?

Heather [00:19:39] You know, what I do is I say: Heather McBride, Human Resources Director candidate. Because it’s a visual. It’s like, oh, Heather is an HR director, then I might put the requisition number because sometimes, in job postings, they give specific subject line instructions. But if they don’t, that’s a real good way of putting in their mind this person is in HR director or this person is a sales executive.

Elaine [00:20:06] Sure. Thank you, Heather. We have a few questions, actually. The first of which is how do I handle what looks like a job gap when the job gap is really because of being in between professional jobs? During this time, I was bartending and I don’t know how to handle the stigma of working in the industry in my resume. It looks like there’s a big gap in between a temporary professional opportunity and a more permanent one.

Heather [00:20:33] Okay, I need just a little bit of details, if I could ask a question in response to that. Is there employment between bartending and the next job?

Elaine [00:20:48] Let me, Jennifer, I’m going to allow you to talk so you can answer her question. Okay. Are you there, Jennifer?

Jennifer [00:20:56]: Hi, yes. I’m here.

Elaine [00:20:57]: Perfect.

Heather [00:20:58] Hi, Jennifer.

Jennifer [00:20:59] Thanks so much for answering my question. Yes, I was bartending during that whole time.

Heather [00:21:06] Okay. You were a bartender during that whole time. When did you leave bartending?

Jennifer [00:21:12] I left bartending almost two years ago. This is, like, a gap from, let’s say

the summer of 2018 to, I guess, the fall of December.

Heather [00:21:33] Did you start another job?

Jennifer [00:21:36] Yes. Well, actually, what happened is I moved from Georgia to Oregon. So it was kind of a big move. I had all of these weird… I guess it’s like a little more complicated than I’m describing. But I was bartending for a year. I had about eight months after this professional opportunity before I moved here. Then, I moved here and got another service industry job. It wasn’t bartending, it was like just cashiering. I did that for a few months and then I got a more professional opportunity. But I don’t listt the cashiering job usually just because I don’t really list either of those jobs. Just because it looks sort of scattered and, instead, I just have this weird gap which feels weird.

In my last job that I had that I really loved, we talked about it in my interview and it wasn’t a problem, but it seems to be more of a barrier. I was really paying a lot of attention to that advice that you were saying about addressing that in that fourth paragraph, because it to be kind of keeping me from getting a real foot in the door.

Heather [00:22:45] So what’s the job you’re doing right now?

Jennifer [00:22:49] I’ve been laid off for about six months now. I was working in a sales position. Doing media sales.

Elaine [00:22:57] Okay. Okay. So one of the things that you could do is you could just, in the cover letter, state that “due to my relocation from Georgia to Oregon there’s”, you know, “there’s a gap of employment and this was while I was relocating” and “I was pursuing a job in media”. So that’s, you know, you can capitalize on your relocation. You can choose, depending on what job you’re going to apply for, you can choose to leave that off or you could choose to summarize, in your resumé, your server and customer service experience. Instead of putting dates, you could say “from this time to this time, I was in the customer service industry” and you can put additional experience or just summarize it so that the gap is not necessarily noticeable on the resume. And of course, in the interview, you’ll probably be having to explain that. But it’s a good way of masking it and showing that you know how to market yourself, which you could do for them. It sounds like that would be kind of the the industry that you would be going towards and how you represent yourself will impress them because they’ll see the potential in you to do it for them.

Jennifer [00:24:26] That is such great advice and I really appreciate it. I’ve been trying to get this question answered and it’s like I feel way more confident about handling it moving forward. So thank you so much.

Heather [00:24:37] Oh, you’re welcome, Jennifer, thank you so much for asking that question. It’s a really good one.

Elaine [00:24:43] Thank you, Jennifer.

Jennifer [00:24:44]: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Elaine [00:24:47]: What, um, ok… any suggestions… I was actually going to ask this so thank you, Tommy, any suggestions on how to address going from a stay-at-home dad for three years and getting back into the work force? Or, tangentially, for those who take a maternity leave or who decide to be the working parent that stays home with children; how do you explain that gap? It feels like we shouldn’t have to justify it because anybody knows what it’s like to be at home with children, knows that’s a full time job in and of itself. But a lot of employers look at that gap and think negatively about it or have, you know, preconceived notions. What’s your advice for that, Heather?

Heather [00:25:29] Well, you know, I’m going to talk about on multiple levels. A lot of times when I work with someone that’s a homemaker or a stay at home father, there are other things they’ve been doing while they’ve been taking care of their kiddos. So I’ll try to find if there’s any volunteer work that they’ve been doing. Any personal hobbies that usually somebody has something that we could capitalize on to fill that three year gap. If not, then what you do is you just really make a solid argument in your resume and in your cover letter about what your skill sets were before. If you can manage it, you could sign up for some courses that improve those skill sets,and then you can add them to your resumé, even if you’ve just enrolled for them. There’s ways of conveying how you have been taking care of family matters rather than children. You say, I’ve been taking care of family matters for the last three years as a sabbatical and I’m now enrolled for these courses just to fine tune my skill sets, and now I’m ready to hit the ground running. So it’s just taking it away from saying, I’ve been an at-home dad for three years taking care of the kiddos. It’s really hard to not find something that you’ve been doing that could fill the gap.

So does that answer the question or is there anything over the last three years you’ve been doing that you could highlight?

Elaine [00:27:30] Tommy, I just unmuted you if you would like to share.

Tommy [00:27:35]: Yeah. So I’ve been doing some contract work, but not that much in the three years, so I’ll try to pull that into it.

Elaine [00:27:44] So let’s talk about the idea of using the word sabbatical.

Heather [00:27:47] Right. Sabbatical. But here’s the thing. If you’ve been doing some contract work, all you have to do is give yourself a title, summarize the contract work that you’ve been doing and put three years because they don’t need to know that it was part time or that it was intermittent. When you’re in the interview, you can share with them that it was intermittent contract work while you were taking care of family matters. But you don’t have to be detailed. It’s not a confessional again. So does that make sense, Tommy?

Tommy [00:28:28] Yeah. That’s very helpful. Thank you very much.

Heather [00:28:30] You’re welcome.

Elaine [00:28:31] Thank you for the question, Tommy. I think it’s a great question. Lots of people have gaps in their resume due to personal matters, family, children, all of those things.

Heather [00:28:40] And it shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.

Elaine [00:28:44] Shouldn’t be an issue, but it does red flag some employers. I know we’re a little over time, but I have two questions that I think would be great for people to know. Sometimes people feel like the cover letter is an opportunity to kind of showcase your personality or depending on the creative role, how they differentiate from or, you know, how you can use your creative acumen. Is a cover letter the time to be cute, to be funny, does it land well? Is it appropriate? What are your thoughts on that?

Heather [00:29:23] If you’re, you know, a stand-up comedian, that’s an appropriate time. If you’re in the movie industry it’s theatrical, you know, I could see that. But I don’t think you should take chances with cuteness. I think you should just be really direct because you just never know how it’s going to be taken. And if you just keep your communication clean, I think you have a better chance. Now, that’s not to say that… I have heard people have results because it was just the right timing and the right person. But, you know, that’s unusual.

Elaine [00:30:05] Okay. The last one is how do you think that cover letter, you know, there are so many resume templates. Should that cover letter look like a traditional letter, “dear…” body, signature at the end…when you’re when you’re in a word document? Or is there something new and fancier that the layout should look like?

Heather [00:30:27] You know, I’m a purist when it comes to resumes and cover letters. I keep things sleek, black and white because you never know what printer somebody has on the other side if they’re going to print it out for hiring leaders. So I keep things very clean, unless it’s an artist type of resume, no graphics, that type of thing.

I always suggest your your resumé and your cover letter header and style be matching and that it be in block format with the date, ex. Attn: talent acquisition human resources, company name, city in the Re, put the title, the requisition number, the “dear hiring team” and, bam, block. because with the indentation and the writing styles, you know, block is the way to go. But make sure your header is the same style as your resume, and also the same as your professional references.

It’s my suggestion that professional references have the same template, but have it be a separate document and that it’s not sent with the resume unless they specifically ask for it. You want to be in charge of when these people contact your references, and it’s also a really great way to follow up after the interview with a separate reference document. It’s a reason to reach out.

Elaine [00:32:01] Love it. Thank you so much. Such such great advice. So many tips and tricks. Thank you so much for everyone that attended today.

Heather [00:32:10]: Thank you.

Elaine [00:32:11]: Yeah. I will definitely be sending all attendees the cover letter template that Heather has provided so you can write your great cover letter. Thank you so much, Heather, for joining us today and talk soon.

Heather [00:32:24] Thank you so much for inviting me, Ellen. I really enjoyed this.

Elaine [00:32:28] Absolutely. Thank you. By everyone way.

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