Each quarter ADVANCE asks nurse recruiters, educators, career coaches and other experts to give advice on how to be noticed in a highly competitive job market. This time around we asked two experts about cover letters.
A decade ago savvy applicants would always craft an introductory letter that would allow them a personal presentation prior to the fact-based, third-person style of a resume.
Today, many employers accept applications only through an online system, so what happens to the opportunity the cover letter gave to the job seeker to pique the interest of the recruiter?
You'll find that some systems allow you to upload a cover letter and others have a space where you can type in a message. Both are optional. Will you take advantage? Let's see what the experts have to say.
Nicholas Piazza is a human resources consultant with MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney, Md.
Lisa Mauri Thomas is dean of education at a career college in Minneapolis. She is also a resume writer and job search strategist. She is the author of the book Landing Your Perfect Nursing Job.
ADVANCE: Does your online application system allow for candidates to upload a cover letter?
Piazza: Our online application allows for individuals to either attach or upload a letter.
Thomas: We use an automated applicant tracking system that does not allow for a cover letter. This is unfortunate as the cover letter tells me a lot about a person's communication skills, how they organize their thoughts, and whether the letter is generic versus customized, which gives me an idea of how interested they are in the job in question.
ADVANCE: If your system does have the option for a cover letter, how important is it that the candidate include one?
Thomas: I wish our system made space for this as I like to see a cover letter; it yields far more clues about a person's personality and motivation than the resume alone. Having a cover letter lets a hiring manager hear directly from the candidate as to what they are excited about regarding the opportunity, what specific talents they may bring to help solve pressing/immediate challenges versus hearing only the recruiter's perspective of whether the candidate is a good fit.
ADVANCE: How important are cover letters in the recruitment process?
Piazza: I am of the old school of recruitment and interviewing. As stated above, I believe a cover letter is an indication that the applicant is truly interested in your organization. I think it demonstrates that the applicant put some thought in to the process and allows them to highlight additional personal information that may not be included in the resume. This being said, recruiters can be bombarded with applications/resumes, therefore, the letter should be short and concise.
Thomas: It can make the difference between who I choose to interview. Often I only have time to interview a few candidates in person. Cover letters give me more to comment on in screening calls, help guide follow-up questions on my end. Sometimes I have a position open for which I get very few qualified candidates and essential qualifications are the main ingredient. If someone isn't qualified, it doesn't matter how good their cover letter is. However, I might be impressed enough to think if their qualifications could work well elsewhere in the organization. If I have a good number of candidates for a given role, cover letters -- well-written, detailed ones -- will serve as a tie-breaker every time in terms of whom I decide to invest my energies toward.
ADVANCE: What do you want to see in a cover letter?
Piazza: A brief introduction, summary of qualifications and most importantly that they demonstrate they have done some research on the organization, i.e., system goals, values, etc.
Thomas: I want a cover letter to acknowledge what the candidate knows about my company and the position I am hiring for and then tie it all together with their most salient qualifications and evidence of "good fit" for the role.
ADVANCE: What mistakes do people make in cover letters?
Piazza: Poor grammar and sentence structure. Always review for accuracy. Spell check is recommended. My pet peeve is receiving a cover letter addressed to another organization. I have seen this on numerous occasions. I realize people may apply to multiple organization; however, at least they should review and make appropriate changes. If not, it shows me that not much thought was put into the writing of the letter, but that they just did a cut and paste.
Thomas: Typos and messy formatting are certainly to be avoided, but mistakes run deeper than that. Think about what a cover letter is ultimately geared to accomplish: to introduce a resume when the candidate is not there to do so in person (this is why cover letters are not handed out in a job fair situation). The cover letter is intended to breathe life into the resume, to demonstrate a level of professionalism and connection that a resume cannot do on its own. The cover letter helps to answer questions that are foremost in a hiring manager's mind. Are they ready to make this leap? Are they willing? Are they truly able to do this job and do it well? Might they be a good fit for the organization? When I get a sense of those critical items right away, through one's cover letter, I am quicker to pick up the phone and call them, to start the recruiting process. Conversely, a generic cover letter that is universally addressed "to whom it may concern" or "recruiter/hiring manager" and only talks about themselves, leaving my company/my needs as a hiring manager out of the equation entirely, I lose interest quickly. If the candidate didn't bother to put any real effort into their materials, or to connect with me beyond the bare minimum; why should I put forth any effort of my own? I am not looking for a warm body but rather a professional with a creative and effective approach to common challenges.
Linda Jones is editorial director at ADVANCE.