These days, whenever employers post a job opening, their inboxes are flooded with responses from a variety of job seekers with varying levels of education and experience. Needless to say, it is an ordeal for employers to weed through the pool of candidates to find not only someone who is qualified for the position but also who fits in with the corporate atmosphere.
I recently went through this process in an effort to find a new assistant to join our small office team. Without an HR staff to support me and with resumes pouring in, I quickly realized that I needed a system for sifting through candidates. Unconventionally, perhaps, I decided the cover letter was my starting ground.
I read through the cover letter, assessed whether I liked the approach the candidate took in reaching out to me, and determined whether I was interested in knowing more about him or her. If I liked what I saw there, then I reviewed the resume. It turned out to be a great way to sift through the candidates because it allowed me to look for a few key things before I moved into the realm of examining resume qualifications.
Many of my recruiter and business owner friends toss out or ignore cover letters completely, but I think this can be a mistake. Unlike the resume, which is meant to dazzle and “wow” you with accomplishments, the cover letter, theoretically at least, is meant to be more personal. The candidate is speaking directly to you (or to your company at least). So in my mind, I wanted to see what he or she had to say first before I assessed each person solely on experience.
To give you an idea of some ways I found the cover letter invaluable, I comprised the following list of things to look for in these documents. Without a doubt, it made the weeding out process much simpler for me and I ended up with an assistant who met my qualification needs and demonstrated the attitude that best suits my environment:
Get a sense of the candidate’s personality. What is the tone of the cover letter? Is it friendly and professional, or is it casual and unorganized? How does that meet up with type of workplace you have to offer? These factors could be key indicators of the candidate’s personality, and paying attention to these aspects helped me weed out individuals that wouldn’t mesh well with my company.
Get a sense of the candidate’s written communication skills. Was the letter filled with grammatical errors? Does he or she know how to use punctuation properly? Does he or she know the correct format for a business letter? Strong communication skills were an important part of the job I was looking to fill, and the cover letter was a good way for me to see the candidates’ writing abilities.
Get a sense of whether the candidate knows how to tailor the cover letter to speak directly to your company. Did the job seeker take the time to research and write a thoughtful, creative cover letter tailored to reflect your company and how each of your goals match? Whether the cover letter is an obvious copy written to fit any number of organizations or is unique to your company reveals a great deal about the candidate’s work ethic.
Get a sense of whether the candidate has a good grasp of professional etiquette. Did he or she reveal unnecessary personal information? Was the language formal and polite? The professionalism displayed in a cover letter is a good indicator of the type of professionalism to expect from the candidate in person.
Get a sense of whether the candidate has a good grasp of the position and its required skills. This is a good gauge of a candidate’s intelligence and comprehension skills. Did he or she read and understand the job posting carefully? Does the candidate have an accurate idea of how to match qualifications with the job requirements? Several people who responded to my posting were overqualified for the position, and reading about their experience in their cover letters allowed me to remove them from the pool of potential candidates. Also, several people didn’t even use the correct title when discussing the position.
Listen. No one likes to reject people; as a small-business owner, it is my least favorite part of the job. To ensure that I wasted as little of my time as well as the applicants’, I used the cover letters to assess the candidates and found it an effective method to ensure that those I did choose to interview already were a good fit for the position. Of course, it is always possible the candidate did not write his or her letter and paid or had someone else do it. But overall, they really can be an important tool for both the employer and the applicant, and employers should invest the time to read them to ensure that they are left with the strongest candidates.
So who am I anyway? Why do I think my advice is so valuable?
My name is Stephen Van Vreede. My company is called No Stone Unturned, and I have spent 15 years on both sides of the corporate hiring experience.
The short story is that I have an MBA in Marketing from Villanova University and a dual B.S. degree in Finance & Logistics from the University of Maryland. I am a certified professional résumé writer (CPRW) and a member of the Professional Association of Résumé Writers and Career Coaches (PARW/CC). I am also an Academy-Certified Resume Writer (ACRW) through the Resume Writing Academy. As I mentioned, I paid my dues in the corporate world eventually running a large-scale call center for a major truck rental company, and I have spent the past 7 years with No Stone Unturned, assisting job seekers in achieving their goals.
In February 2009, I launched a new group job hunting networking site: NoddlePlace.com. It is absolutely FREE to join, and you have access to everything on the site. Come check it out at NoddlePlace. You can also follow me on Twitter.