Monday, December 20, 2010

When Cover Notes Work Better than Cover Letters

"Good things, when short, are twice as good." - Baltasar Gracian, The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Swamped with emails and phone calls, deadlines and program changes, staff issues and meetings, most managers these days are challenged more than ever to be efficient with their time. To them, reading a long cover letter that makes a detailed case for hiring a candidate may be as frustrating as a meeting that goes on without getting much accomplished, or a phone call with a client who just keeps talking. So when you send a carefully-crafted, succinct cover note, it can be like a breath of fresh air.

Why a Cover Note can be more Effective than a Cover Letter

  • Slingshot response - If managers read long cover letters at all, they are likely to breeze through them to see if the name of the candidate or referrer is familiar, or to look for red flags like spelling errors or tone. They know that they get the information that is most useful to them from the resume itself. Later, if there is need for further consideration, they could refer to the cover letter but most likely would just ask the candidate questions in an interview. Therefore, wordiness can render a cover letter ineffective. A quick cover note, on the other hand, acts like a slingshot - a simple, effective tool that motivates the reader to go straight to the resume.
  • Talking their language - Showing a manager that you know what it's like to be in their shoes demonstrates experience and inspires confidence. Because a cover note is short and to the point, an instant rapport is established by getting down to business. And you demonstrate that you are putting the employer first.
  • Communicating respect - Acknowledging potential employers with respect is a great way to get them to read cover letters, but how respect is communicated is changing. In the past, if a letter wasn't sent on fancy paper with one-inch margins and formal language, it appeared as a lack of respect. But for more and more managers who are stretched thin, the traditional page-long cover letter that makes a case for hiring the candidate verges on overkill. If you provide a brief cover note on plain paper, you demonstrate respect for their time, and an overall mindset of time management and efficiency.
  • Working within the rules - Because many managers already receive short cover notes with resumes sent by email or snail mail, sending a lengthy letter can appear as old school or antiquated. By using a cover note, you can show that you've taken the time to educate yourself on how the latest system works, and are willing to work within it.
  • Economy of words - Concise writing shows that you have well-developed writing skills, and are able to condense your thoughts for expedient communication.
  • Art of persuasion - A cover note puts marketing strategy to work. It is designed to persuade recipients to take immediate action to learn more about you. The message focuses on benefits you offer to the employer, reveals how you stand out as better than the rest, and prompts the reader to continue to the next step. The science of this can be lost in a lengthy cover letter.
  • Less room for error - The shorter the letter, the fewer opportunities for typos or awkward grammar.

What to Include in a Cover Note

  • Short subject line - When submitting a resume by email or online form, keep subject lines short. When possible, include a job reference number, job title, or the name of the person who authorized a referral. For example, "Inquiry regarding Job #6752-1 on" or "Marketing Coordinator referred by Mitchell Camden."
  • Be specific - Respond to a specific position and address the recipient by name whenever possible. Unsolicited resumes are less likely to be read.
  • Purpose - The intention of the cover note should be made clear in the first paragraph, indicating what prompted the communication and referring to your resume. As an example, "I am sincerely interested in the position of Client Relations Manager (Reference #S563) posted on, and have attached a resume for your review." or "I had the pleasure of meeting Carol Hutchens at last week's HR symposium, and she suggested I contact you regarding job opportunities within your IT department. I have attached a resume for your consideration."
  • Match skills to responsibilities - In the second paragraph, begin with a statement showing how your skills are well-matched to the position using the same kind of language used in the job description. For example, if one of the daily responsibilities of the job is "Conducts research on news items related to biopharmaceuticals and Acme, Inc. using the Internet and print resources, and documents news items in the public relations repository," you might write "Please note that I have two years experience conducting and documenting Internet research for an online publication, and was responsible for managing the news article archives."
  • Benefits and differentiators - The second paragraph should also include a short statement identifying the best benefits you bring to the table and the attributes that set you apart from other qualified candidates. As an example, "After five years as a journalist in Baltimore, I have an extensive list of contacts that will prove beneficial to your public relations department, and because I wrote regularly for the society column of the newspaper, I am uniquely qualified to reach your target audience."
  • All necessary details - In the optional third paragraph of the cover note, make sure all of the necessary details regarding special considerations are provided so there are no surprises later, like "I will be relocating to a neighborhood near your Cambridge facility on April 17" or "I am otherwise committed weekday mornings before noon, but available to work afternoon and evening shifts." If the employer asks for salary requirements to be included, this is the place to provide a general statement such as "I am seeking a salary in the area of $25,000 per year."
  • Call to action - Inviting the recipient to follow up with you about your resume is as important as asking for the position in an interview. In a last paragraph, express interest in the opportunity and anticipation of further contact. For example, "I am sincerely interested in being part of your team, and hope you will consider me for the Claims Analyst position. I look forward to hearing from you." This not only clearly places the ball in their court, but prompts them to look further into your qualifications (i.e. reading your resume).
  • Acknowledgement - Thanking the reader for their time not only demonstrates respect, but reinforces that their concerns are your first priority.

When to Use a Cover Note

Use your knowledge of the company, the industry, and the position to determine whether a cover letter or cover note is most suitable. The wording of a job description or company website can reveal how forward thinking an employer is - therefore how open they may be to a new way of doing things. Conservative, traditional companies should be approached with conservative, traditional cover letters. Industries who are most likely to respond well to cover notes are notably progressive ones like IT, journalism, marketing, and healthcare. Recruiting agencies also tend to prefer them.

Most importantly, use the cover note or cover letter that suits your personality best. This will help a potential employer determine whether you will be a good match for the team.

Guest post by Ellen Berry who writes about a variety of education and career topics for


Elissa Poma said...

I agree 100 percent with everything you write here. It initially makes my clients incredibly nervous when I provide them 300-word-max cover letters. But then they put themselves in the hiring manager's shoes and suddenly, they see how much better a short cover note is. I'd testify under oath to how effective this can be!

Cover letter format said...

Ellen, your idea of sending a "Cover Note" instead of a cover letter looks good and more importantly it is a welcome innovation in the field of job applications.

terri said...

It's similar to a college application essay, right? Don't want to bore them to death with verbage or you may not get to the next step.

Ayeda said...

very informative !!! and yeah you're right cover notes are more important