How to Strategically Analyze a Cover Letter
There is a wide variety of information available to job seekers regarding how to write the best cover letter. However, many of these informative guides will contradict each other. For example, one guide suggests that every cover letter should be closed with an actionable paragraph in which the candidate must demonstrate an intent to follow up on the application. Other guides suggest that this is to be avoided at all costs.
Whichever guide a candidate chooses to follow, a good cover letter can express valuable information about a potential candidate. A cover letter can provide insight into the candidate’s personality. It is also a demonstration of several skills including communication, writing, organization and the ability to correctly follow directions.
There are many free resources both online and in the community to learn how to write a good cover letter. If it is immediately obvious that a candidate has chosen not to dedicate time and care to their cover letter, a hiring manager should not devote their resume much attention. Those candidates who recognize the value of a good cover letter show demonstrable skill and prove that they take the job hunting process seriously.
The following article is a guide to strategically analyzing a cover letter. We will explore 1) the CV format, 2) analytical reading, 3) comparing cover letter to the resume, and 4) asking some questions. While this guide is aimed at recruiters and hiring managers, job hunters can also take away valuable information about how potential employers read their cover letters and resumes.
FORMAT OF THE COVER LETTER
The format of a cover letter is the first thing that you should check before you begin to analyze the text of the letter. Before you read the cover letter, look at the presentation of the letter itself. The font should be well chosen, and there should be multiple paragraphs. From the first glance, it should be immediately obvious that the candidate took time and care in writing their letter. A good format should include the following characteristics:
Easy to Read
The characteristics of an easy to read cover letter include more than well-worded text. The choice of the font should be both professional and easy to read. There is a rule about choosing an accessible font in almost every ‘How to Write a Cover Letter Guide’. A good candidate will understand that hiring managers have to read dozens of cover letters for each open position. They should be considerate and follow the rule of choosing a font like Verdana or Times New Roman when writing their cover letters and resumes. This consideration will demonstrate the ability to follow rules and professionalism.
The layout of the cover letter is also important. This is a hiring manager’s first chance to judge the writing skills of the applicant. Applicants who write using a proper letter layout will immediately prove their writing skills. Hiring managers should also look for short, well-defined paragraphs.
The candidates who choose to take extra time in formatting their cover letters through custom templates should be given extra consideration. If the attention to detail in the prose is as strong as it is in the formatting, the cover letter will be an excellent resource for a hiring manager.
Look for a strong beginning and a strong closing sentence. This will demonstrate to the employer that the candidate has written a letter specifically for this job. It will also demonstrate effective communication skills. Opening paragraphs are particularly controversial subjects in many cover letter writing guides. Some guides will suggest that candidates open their letter with obvious information while other guides say that they should avoid it at all costs. Whichever method a candidate chooses to use, judge them for the information they provide rather than the style guide they have chosen.
A cover letter should be short. It should amplify the resume in prose form. A cover letter is also designed to be descriptive. It should cover both the job seeker’s intentions as well provide an illustration to the resume. A cover letter can provide descriptions and examples of previous work, but it should not provide large amounts of unnecessary details. A cover letter should also be concise and should not take up more than one page. Be wary of cover letters that contain an endless flow of vague information that does not relate to the job posting. Even if the prose is well written, huge amounts of information is bad form for a cover letter.
A cover letter is a short document, and it should be error-free. It does not take a long time to check your work when you are only writing a few hundreds of words. Thus, major grammar and punctuation mistakes should be avoided.
There should be no spelling mistakes in a cover letter. If the cover letter is word processed, there are enough reference and reviewing functions to provide spelling guidance. All spelling mistakes demonstrate sloppy work in a short document like a cover letter.
Spelling and grammar are a difficult call to make when the letter is written by a person whose first language is not English. If the resume suggests that the candidate previously lived and worked in another country, you can be more generous because some people are better at speaking than they are at writing. However, regardless of their native language, multiple major spelling errors should taken into account.
After you have completed an initial check of the format of the cover letter, you can begin reading it to examine the information. While you are reading the letter, you should be thinking about the efficacy of the information that is being provided. You should consider whether the writer is using appropriate business language or if they are using a casual tone. You should also consider whether or not the information is clear and relevant to the job posting. Consider asking the following questions while you are strategically reading the cover letter:
Why is the candidate applying?
The main purpose of the cover letter is to demonstrate the candidate’s intentions in applying for the job. This intention is different from statements about why they would be suited for a role. A candidate’s motivation in applying for a job will demonstrate professional intention and personal character. If a candidate says that they are applying for this job to further their career in the field, this demonstrates a desire to improve their skills and progress their career. The motivation for applying for a job is especially important if the candidate is changing careers. You should look for a brief reason as to why they have decided to move from one field to another. The reasons may be economic, but they may also be personal.
How does the candidate fit the role?
The candidate should include a brief statement about how they fit the role that they are applying for. By including this statement, they will have demonstrated that they have read the job posting in its entirety. This statement will demonstrate an understanding of both the job requirements as well as the desired personal characteristics.
The cover letter should state at least two of the candidate’s major qualifications for the role. The qualifications should ideally be supported by specific examples of these abilities or characteristics. The major qualifications should also be relevant to the required skills of the role.
The cover letter should not be identical to the resume. A cover letter is not another space to list a candidate’s full employment history. It should instead provide the highlights of the resume and include information that is not found in the resume, such as the statement of intent or skills. A great cover letter will provide specific examples of skills held by the candidate.
Do they provide specific examples?
A great cover letter will provide a few specific examples that highlight skills or experiences listed on the resume. The best way for a candidate to do this is to tell a story. This is because a candidate’s experience should be demonstrable, and the narrative form is the best way to convey this kind of experience.
These examples should also be specific to the job requirements. The cover letter is not the place for a candidate to tell you about their distinct interest in psychology if the role has nothing to with the skills required by psychology. If the job posting requires someone who is highly skilled in problem solving, a candidate should answer with a few intriguing sentences about a specific problem they recently solved.
Be aware of any weak or irrelevant examples in the cover letter. This may mean that the candidate has very little experience to draw on. Providing general examples may also be an indication that the candidate has submitted a standard cover letter rather than writing a letter for the position that they are applying for.
COMPARING COVER LETTER TO THE RESUME
After you have analyzed the cover letter, you should compare it to the resume. The cover letter should make the person described in the resume stand off the page. A good cover letter will shine light on a resume, and it may also call into question certain parts of the resume. A thorough analysis is required to get a fuller picture of the candidate and their capabilities.
Look for Explanations
A candidate may use the cover letter as a means of explaining gaps in employment or strange changes in position. A comparison of the letter and the resume would ideally make the situation clear. Be careful when reading convoluted explanations that do not provide any insight in the situation. The explanations should be clear and concise. It should be specific and not general. Explanations that provide more confusion than they do insight often mean that the candidate is trying to conceal something. It may also mean that they are not skilled communicators. Either way, these qualities are usually undesirable in a potential employee.
When you are reading cover letters, it is important to distinguish between useful explanations and excuses. Some people use their cover letter to disarm their resume rather than supplement it. Using excuses in a cover letter or any part of the job application process often demonstrates a failure to take responsibility for themselves. This is another undesirable quality for an employee.
The skills that a candidate reports in their cover letter should be reflected in the resume. If the candidate reports having skills in their cover letter that do not appear in the roles they list on their resume, there may be cause for concern. While the candidate may have the skills that they list, they probably were not able to practice them if they cannot list a relevant role in their resume.
You should also consider facts from any stories or anecdotes in the cover letter. If they list specific dates or periods in their life, compare this to the resume to make sure that it checks out. Storytelling is difficult for many people, and there is some tendency just to make something up when they are writing a cover letter. It is best practice to try to evaluate the reliability of the information a candidate provides in their cover letter.
Reevaluate the Cover Letter
After you have read the resume, go back to the cover letter and re-evaluate it. After having read both documents, you should begin to see a clearer picture of the candidate. This will prepare you to make a decision about whether or not you should proceed to the next stage of the process: the interview.
After you have reviewed the cover letter and the resume, think about what you have learned about this employee from their application. There are several questions that you should ask yourself as you reflect on the efficacy of the cover letter. By thinking through the following questions, you will have a clearer idea of whether or not you want to move the candidate forward in the selection process.
Does the candidate explain inconsistencies?
You need to distinguish between explanations and excuses in many cover letters. Ask yourself if you are interested in a candidate who makes excuses rather than learning from their mistakes. As a hiring manager, you will rarely find a perfect candidate, and this is perfectly normal. You should be prepared to be forgiving in some areas for the right candidate. However, you should not tolerate blatant lies in job applications.
Does the cover letter let you know more about the individual candidate?
The cover letter is designed to highlight the most important and interesting traits that the candidate has to offer. You should read the cover letter and feel as though you understand the person behind the resume better than you did before. However, a cover letter should not be written in essay form. The cover letter should be an informative piece of prose consisting of concise detail. It should not be an elaborate narrative full of information that was not required.
Is it just a regurgitation of the job posting?
You should read the cover letter to learn about the candidate’s personality. The cover letter should be a reflection of the candidate rather than a rewrite of the original job posting. Be wary of any letters that show little to no originality or individuality. While it is important for candidates to be able to follow directions, it is equally important for a potential employee to be able to think for themselves.
Is the information relevant?
The cover letter should provide insightful and relevant information. Important information should stand off the page, and you should not have to hunt for meaning. Providing relevant information demonstrates careful consideration for the hiring manager and the position. It also expresses the ability to follow directions which is an important asset for potential employees in all fields.
What do you know about the candidate?
Think about what you have learned from the candidate. The information discernable through the cover letter is not only the blatant information that the candidate provides. You can learn about how they express themselves. You may also learn about their writing skills and their commitment to detail. Good communication is one of the most valuable assets in business, and you should take this into consideration when you are analyzing a cover letter.
The cover letter is a powerful tool for both applicants and recruiters. It allows the candidate to express themselves in a way that a traditional resume does not allow. It also allows recruiters to get to know candidates in a more personal way. By evaluating the cover letter alongside the resume, hiring managers can spot both the strengths and weaknesses of a potential employee. A strong cover letter is usually a good sign that a candidate should move forward into the next phase of the recruiting process.