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Your Cover Letter Didn’t Bore the Employer, You Did

Your Cover Letter Didn’t Bore the Employer, You Did

If you’ve been playing the job search game long enough, you know what a hassle crafting the perfect cover letter can become. From writing content that demands attention to formatting and editing, it’s a lot of work to put into something that most recruiters only spend about six seconds reviewing.[1] But as the first thing a recruiter may see, your cover letter provides your first (and sometimes only) shot at selling yourself well enough to warrant giving your resume a glance over.

The Common Pitfalls of Traditional Cover Letters

Even all-star candidates sometimes find it difficult to write cover letters. What do you include? How long should it be? To whom should you address it? The answers to these questions could well vary between jobs, companies, and industries, which means you have to do a little extra homework to find which techniques will work best for your own situation.

Other common cover letter mistakes include

  • Focusing too much on your own achievements
  • Sharing the details of every single job
  • Sounding too trite or colloquial
  • Including misspellings and grammar mistakes
  • Coming across as a superfan of the company applied to
  • Writing too much
  • Talking about something uncomfortable, such as reasons why you were fired from a previous job
  • Summarizing your resume

To add to the struggle of writing a noteworthy cover letter, there’s the extra task of tailoring it to for each job and company you apply to. Companies don’t want a generic anybody-could-write-this-for-any-job letter or resume. Using a letter that reads as a fill-in-the-blank prototype doesn’t give a good first impression about your work abilities and ambition.

Why a Strong Cover Letter Matters

Studies show that 90% of hiring managers don’t read cover letters, 97% make a hiring decision based solely off the resume, but nearly 53% of employers prefer candidates that provide a cover letter.

So why does a cover letter even matter if no one is going to read it (or at least read it entirely)?

It proves that you can follow directions.

One, if an employer asks for a cover letter, it shows you can follow directions. You don’t want to sabotage your chances of getting the job by not following each required step, regardless of whether you think the inclusion of a cover letter is important or not.

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It ensures you appear at your best.

Two, when you submit a cover letter, you don’t know if it will be read or not. Cover letters might rank higher in prioritization for some HR departments than others, and putting forth your best effort regardless of whether it will be read can ensure you put your best foot forward – just in case.

It helps you stand out from the pack.

And three, if you can write a strong cover letter (something that many people find difficult), you can use it as a competitive advantage to put you above other applicants. It’s one chance to stand out from the pack, and you should take as many of those chances as you can get.

How to Write a Stand Out Cover Letter

The good news is that you don’t have to be an expert writer to to put together a professional-looking cover letter that will warrant more than just a glance. Take a look at this cover letter format guide that can help transform your cover letter into one that recruiters will want to read:

Avoid colloquialisms.

If you use To Whom It May Concern to begin your cover letter, stop. This antiquated salutation relays two ideas:

First, that you aren’t creative enough to break outside of the same greeting that nearly everyone uses.

And second, that you have no clue who you are addressing and didn’t take the time to find out.

You might think this bland, generic, gender-free salutation is a safe bet. It’s not. If, after some effort, you are not sure who will be reading your cover letter, try using something like Hi [company name]’s recruiting team. Even this simple bit of personalization with the company’s name can help your letter shine a little brighter.

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Other common colloquialisms include “I’d like to apply for…” or “I hope to hear back from you soon.” The recruiter probably knows these things, so you don’t need to include them. Instead, focus on using your cover letter real estate space more effectively by filling it with value, rather that the elements that you think should be there because other peoples’ cover letters have them.

Focus on how your experience will benefit the company.

Oftentimes people spend too much time talking about what they achieved in previous jobs, but they fail to convey how those experiences can potentially benefit the company they are applying at.

Granted, you do need to divulge a little about yourself in your cover letter. But make sure that whatever you decide to talk about ultimately connects to how your talents will be useful within the role you hope to get.

Keep it short and simple.

Given that most recruiters won’t even look at your cover letter, there’s no need to engage in a retelling of your entire job history. Many people think the cover letter should summarize your resume, but this simply isn’t the case. Your resume is the place for you to dive deep into your work history, so you don’t need to rehash it in your cover letter.

Instead, try and focus on a couple standout achievements from your previous jobs, then relate how those specific achievements could prove useful in the position you are applying for.

Also, try to limit your cover letter to a few paragraphs, not including the salutation or closing. Your cover letter should definitely be no more than a page, but it should also be long enough to explain why you’d make the best fit for the position.

Proofread your cover letter (for at least 2 times).

If your cover letter is read (despite the odds against it), you don’t want to have it full of misspellings and grammar errors. This indicates sloppiness and lack of attention to detail, both of which might tell the recruiter what kind of a worker you would be if hired.

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Your safest option is to have someone else review your finished cover letter for typos and errors before you send it in. You can also use a tool like the Grammarly plugin that can help catch minor mistakes.

Here’s what a good cover letter looks like:

1. Must-have Elements for Printed Cover Letter (in order)

Your contact information
Name
Address
City, State, ZIP
Phone Number
Email Address
Their contact information (if you have it)

Name
Title
Company
Address
City, State, ZIP

Salutation

  • First Paragraph – your overall objective and purpose
  • Middle Paragraph(s) – what you can offer the employer if hired. Include how your achievements relate to the position you are applying for.
  • Last Paragraph – Conclusion and thank you for their consideration

Closing – examples are Regards, Best, Cheers, Respectfully Yours, etc.

Signature – this should be handwritten

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2. Must-have Elements for an Email Cover Letter (in order)

Subject Line

Salutation

  • First Paragraph – your overall objective and purpose
  • Middle Paragraph(s) – what you can offer the employer if hired. Include how your achievements relate to the position you are applying for.
  • Last Paragraph – Conclusion and thank you for their consideration

Closing – examples are Regards, Best, Cheers, Respectfully Yours, etc.

Signature

Cover letter writing can seem daunting for many people, but understanding the right format and the must-have elements can help relieve some stress.

Reference

[1] Undercover Recruiter: How Long Do Recruiters Spend Reading Your CV?

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Last Updated on April 23, 2019

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

How to Set Stretch Goals and Keep Your Team Motivated

Stretch goals are a lot like physical fitness. When you adopt a physical sport such as running, continual practice leads to increased stamina, growth and progress.

While commitment to the sport improves performance, true growth happens when you are stretched beyond your comfort zone. I know this from personal experience.

For years, I was an avid runner. I ran with a variety of running groups in the Washington, D.C., area and in Columbus, Ohio, where I lived prior to moving to the nation’s capital in 2011.

While I was initially fearful about slacking off on my exercise habit when I moved to D.C., running enthusiasts in the area provided continual motivation, inspiring me to lace up my shoes day after day. Much to my surprise, many of the area’s running stores (including Pacers and Potomac River Running) boasted running groups that met in the mornings and evenings. So, it was relatively easy for a newcomer like me to connect with like-minded peers.

I was never a particularly fast runner, but I enjoyed the afterglow of the sport: being completely drained but feeling a sense of accomplishment; setting and reaching goals; buying and wearing out new tennis shoes. The sound of throngs of feet pounding the pavement in semi-unison is still enough to bring tears to my eyes. Yes, I sometimes tear up at the start of races.

Of all the groups I ran with, the Pacers Store group that met on Monday nights in Logan Circle boasted the fastest runners. I met up with the group week after week only to be the slowest runner. It was difficult to muster the courage to get up every week and meet the group knowing what was waiting for me: sweating and watching the backs of fellow runners.

Each time I joined the group, I was stretching myself without even realizing it. Instead of feeling like I was transitioning into a better running, for a long time I felt I was torturing myself.

Then something remarkable happened. I went for a run with a different set of runners and noticed my time had improved. I was running at a faster pace and doing so with ease. What was once uncomfortable for me I now handled with ease.

The reason I was becoming a better runner was because I was taking myself out of my comfort zone and challenging myself physically and mentally. This example illustrates the process of growth.

Fortunately, we can create situations that stretch us in our personal and professional lives.

What Is a Stretch Goal?

A stretch goal – as authors Sim B. Sitkin, C. Chet Miller and Kelly E. See detail an article “The Stretch Goal Paradox” in Harvard Business Review[1] – is something that is extremely difficult and novel. It is something that not everyone does, and it’s sometimes considered impossible.

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In general, you establish stretch goals by doing things that are difficult or temporarily challenging.

For instance, when I was first promoted to a senior communications management role, I knew I needed to beef up my relationships with media personalities. I set a goal to once a month book a day of media interviews in New York City – which is home to many media outlets, including SiriusXM radio, CNN, NBC News, HuffPost, VIBE.

This was a huge goal because it meant not only identifying the right people to meet with but convincing them to meet with me and my team. While I didn’t end up meeting the goal of doing a full day of media interviews in New York City, I met more people than I would have met had I not established the goal and instead stayed in the comfort of my D.C. office.

It is important to note that just because you establish a stretch goal doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the goal each time. However, the process of trying is guaranteed to provide some level of growth.

The Importance of Creating Stretch Goals

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to assess where you are excelling and where there is room for you to grow. I typically start the year by creating a yearlong strategic plan for myself.

I think about the things that are necessary to do and things that would be cool to do. I assess the people I should know and think through how to meet them. Then I ask myself if the goals are realistic and what would need to happen for me to achieve them.

Over time, I have learned that there are five things I can do to set stretch goals:

1. Get Outside of Your Head

If I exist within the confines of my imagination, I imperil my own growth and creativity.

If I examine my accomplishments and celebrate them in isolation of others’ accomplishments, my vantage point is limited.

I want to be comfortable with what I accomplish, but I also want to be motivated by watching others. In some respects, stretching is about expanding your network of friends, associates and mentors. These are the people who will propel or slow your growth and development.

Since two are better than one, I always value being able to share my progress with others, seek feedback and then map a plan for success.

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2. Focus on a Couple Areas at a Time

When setting goals, it is important to focus on a couple of areas at a time. Most of us are only able to focus on a few things at a time, and if you feel you are unable to tackle all that is before you, you may simply disengage.

I see this in so many areas of life:

When people get in debt, if they believe the debt is insurmountable, they refuse to look at incoming bills for fear of facing down the debt. Unfortunately, many businesses go awry when setting stretch goals.

In “The Stretch Goal Paradox,” Sitkin, Miller and See note:

“Our research suggests that though the use of stretch goals is quite common, successful use is not. And many executives set far too many stretch goals. In the past five years, for example, Tesla failed to meet more than 20 of founder Elon Musk’s ambitious projections and missed half of them by nearly a year, according to the Wall Street Journal.”

Goal-setting is like a marathon, not a sprint. It doesn’t all need to happen at the same time, and pacing is extremely important if you want to get to the finish line. It is better to focus on a couple goals at a time, master them and then move on to the next thing.

3. Set Aside Time Each Year to Focus on Goal-Setting

When I was a managing director for communications for the Advancement Project, I spent the first part of every year facilitating a communications planning meeting.

The planning meeting began with the team members assessing the goals the team had established in the preceding year, and whether those goals were realistic or not. If we failed to meet certain goals, we broke down why that happened. From there, we brainstormed about possibilities for the current year.

For instance, one year we set a goal of pitching and getting 24 opinion essays published. This was audacious because no one on the eight-person team had the luxury of focusing exclusively on editing and pitching opinion essays to publications around the world. We would need to focus on pitching in between the rest of our work.

We hit this goal within the first eight months of the year. Remarkably, in total, we ended up getting 40 opinion essays published that year, which was an indication that our original goal was too low. We upped the goal to 41 the next year, and amazingly, we hit 42 published opinion essays or guest columns.

From this experience, we not only learned what was feasible, we also learned the power of focus.

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When we focused as a team on getting the commentary on our issues out in the public domain, we were successful. The key in all of this is that there was a ton of discussion around which goal we’d pursue and why.

Equally important, as a manager, I didn’t set the goals alone; the team members and I established the goals collaboratively. This ensured buy-in from each individual.

4. Use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal Model to Set Realistic Goals

S.M.A.R.T.

is a synonym for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. For the sake of this article, the realistic portion of the acronym is most important.

While you want to set audacious goals, you want to ensure that they are realistic as well. No one is served by setting a goal that is impossible to accomplish.

Failing to meet goals can be demoralizing for teams, so it’s important to be sober-eyed about what is possible. Additionally, the purpose of setting goals is to advance and grow, not depress morale.

For instance, my team would have been discouraged had I begun the year asking it to pitch and place 40 opinion essays if we didn’t already have a track record of placing close to two dozen essays.

By using the S.M.A.R.T. formula, we were able to achieve all that we set out to do.

5. Break the Goal up into Small Digestible Parts

I am a recovering perfectionist. As a writer, being a perfectionist can be counterproductive because I can fail to start if I don’t see a clear pathway to victory.

The same is true with goal-setting. That’s why I join Lifehack’s fellow contributor Deb Knobelman, Ph.D., in noting that it is critically important to break goals into bite-sized chunks.

When I had a goal of doing daylong media meetings in New York City, I had to think through all the barriers to achieving that goal and all the steps required to meet the goal.

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One step was identifying which reporters, producers and hosts to engage. Another step was writing a pitch or meeting invitation that would capture their attention. Another step was thinking through the program areas I wanted to highlight and the new angles I could offer to different reporters.

Since reporters want to cover stories that no one else has written, I needed to come up with fresh angles for each of the reporters I was engaging. An additional step was thinking through who from my team I’d take with me to the various meetings.

I was clear that, as a talking head, as public relations reps are sometimes called, I needed the right spokesperson in order to land repeated meetings with different outlets.

A final step was thinking through what I needed to bring to each meeting and which reports, videos and testimonials would buttress our claims and be of interest to media figures.

As I walked through what was needed to bring my goal of doing daylong meetings to reality, I realized that not only was the idea within reach, but I was excited to tackle the challenge.

From that point until now, I have learned to break down goals into smaller parts and tackle the smaller parts on the path to knocking the goal out of the park.

The Bottom Line

These are my recommendations for setting stretch goals, and there are a ton of other resources to support you in the workplace and in your community.

For instance, LinkedIn’s Lynda.com platform has a wonderful suite of leadership development videos, including ones on establishing stretch goals. This is a paid resource but may be worth the investment if you lead a team or want to invest in tools for your own growth and development.

Featured photo credit: Avatar of user Isaac Smith Isaac Smith @isaacmsmith Isaac Smith via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Business Review: The Stretch Goal Paradox

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