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What Matters to Me in a Cover Letter

By Marty Nemko

My long-time personal assistant, Lynaire McGovern, is heading off to graduate school, so I placed a want ad to replace her. Of the 100 people that responded, I asked 20 to complete an application. I thought you might find it helpful to know how I chose the 20.

I relied more on the cover letter than on the resume because this job requires little experience or technical expertise. Also, resumes too often contain creative writing.

Cover letters that made it into my top 20:

-- suggested the applicant was intelligent. Sometimes the person conveyed this by having a degree from a hard-to-get-into college, but other times I inferred their intelligence from the way the applicant conveyed information. For example, the job requires the ability to drive a stick shift. One applicant responded, “I grew up driving the most beastly stick shift known to man: an '84 Blazer with the highest clutch plate and the stiffest accelerator ever manufactured.” Of course, that sentence also revealed a personality that suggests she’d be an interesting person to have around.

Note: It is less effective for a candidate to state outright that her or she is intelligent. Such claims, especially without evidence, sound empty. It’s usually best to demonstrate your intelligence by describing one or two challenges you met using your intelligence.

-- suggested the candidate has a good work ethic. One person wrote, “I have always felt a certain zen when doing others' mundane tasks. It goes back to my babysitting days when I would, on my own volition, vacuum and clean the houses--my mother would have been shocked.” This conveys her work ethic far more credibly than the typical, “I’m a hard worker.”

-- suggested the candidate was kind. I’m looking for an applicant who is more of a giver than a taker. One applicant wrote, “I know how important it is to listen carefully, to really understand.” Another wrote, “I get real pleasure out of helping others.” In contrast, other letters focused on what they could get out of the job. One person asked five questions including, “Are hours submitted in an invoice format and is that how payment is rendered?”

-- suggested the person had integrity. This is the most difficult factor to evaluate, especially from a letter. But these responses impressed me: “I'm very honest, even to a fault, I've been told.” and ” I am left alone in other people's homes all the time.”

-- stated the candidate believed he or she was good at and enjoyed each task in the job description. One person wrote, “When I read your ad, I thought I had died and gone to heaven!”She want on to cite her experience with each task.

-- were reasonably well written. I was saddened by the number of college graduates with high-school-level writing skills. This sentence was written by someone with an English (!) degree from Berkeley (!) “Hopefully you will find my interest and qualifications to your satisfaction, for I am eager to learn more about the opportunities of the personal assistant position.” She went on to say she had taught (!) a class at Berkeley on Sylvia Plath. By the way, she spelled it “Silvia.”(!)

-- had no more than one typo in it. I’m not perfect either, but if a person had two or more typos in a short letter in which the person was trying to impress me, it’s a sign he or she is error-prone. I swear, one applicant wrote that she’s good at proofreading and in the very next sentence, spelled dollar “dollor.”

-- Flattery helps; we all prefer to work with people that like and respect us. Candidates who knew of and like my work got a plus. One applicant simply wrote, “ I would enjoy working for a writer whose column I admire.”

-- avoided canned job-seeker language. Applicants actually wrote: “ Please accept the following resume in consideration for the ‘Personal Assistant’ position.” “Objective: Seeking to secure a position in a new field that will utilize my skills, and allow opportunity for growth and new learning experiences.”, and “Result-orientated (sic) administrator who has consistently been able to achieve and exceed organizational goals.” Such language makes me feel I’m not getting an application from a real person but a snow job created by some job-search book.

-- did not tell me their astrological sign.

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