It took me about three or four years to get the job I’m in now. Part of that was during the recession, which forced me to sit back and wait for the market to improve. But even then, I kept browsing job listings to see what opportunities were available.
It’s not fun. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who thinks it is. Now, don’t get me wrong: sometimes a job posting will come along that gets you excited. It’s exactly what you’re looking for! It sounds like a unique opportunity! Or the company is solving a fun, interesting problem! But then reality sets in. How do you apply? How do you get noticed? You look at your dry resume and generic cover letter and, for a moment, you wish that you could pick up the phone and talk directly to the recruiter. Instead of getting lost in a pile of paper (virtual or otherwise), you yearn to speak to an actual human about why the job makes you excited.
When I decided to truly get serious about my job hunt, I knew I needed a different strategy. So I did some research. Ultimately, the answer I found was something I should have known all along.
To put it simply, the secret is your cover letter. Yeah, you’ve heard that before, right? The issue is that most people write a cover letter once, perhaps changing a company name here, or a list of qualifications there. And why not? When you’re faced with five or more potential jobs, it’s tempting to just fire off a pre-made resume and cover letter and get it done.
This is what my cover letter used to look like:
Dear Sir or Madam,
I’m currently looking for a new job that builds on the experience I’ve gained over the last few years. This includes requirements collection, design, development, testing and support. My recent experience has been in C#, SQL and scripting languages (Perl, PHP, 4D), but I’ve also had experience with full web development. There are some recent technologies that I’m not as familiar with, such as Ruby; but, I enjoy the challenge of learning new languages and technologies, and feel the real skill of software engineering is designing an elegant solution – which is something I constantly strive for.
I really like the Location area, and so relocating is something I am willing and able to do. I’ve also always had great respect for Company, because of these generic reasons.
I look forward to discussing this position with you more.
It may not be masterful prose, but there isn’t anything glaringly wrong about this letter. The real problem is more subtle: it’s boring.
- Sir or Madam? What is this, 1952?
- C#, SQL and scripting languages (Perl, PHP, 4D)/full web development. Wall of technologies or skills – it’s great that you know them, but so what?
- “I enjoy the challenge” or “designing an elegant solution” or even those generic reasons for liking the company: all empty phrases that we know sound nice and clean and proper, but recruiters are sick of hearing.
And that’s the crux of the issue here: getting a recruiter’s attention. I don’t know about you, but I used to think of a cover letter as a bow on top of a package. It made you stand out, and perhaps got you closer to the top of potential recruits.
Truth is, the cover letter is your foot in the door. The cover letter answers that desire to pick up the phone and talk to someone about how excited a job posting makes you. If you called a recruiter and said, “Hello madam, I’m currently looking for a new job that builds on the experience I’ve gained over the last few years,” you’d be hung up on.
Recruiters get lots of applications and most of them are junk. A generic letter like the one above quickly gets tossed aside because it sounds like a lot of other generic letters. You need to state clearly at the beginning why you’re applying for the job. That’s it. After that, switch to a concise, bulleted list of why you’re perfect for the job. No generic phrases: look at the job posting, and then counter each requirement with the exact reasons you’re the candidate they need to hire. Add comments about the things that make you particularly interested about the job, if you can.
This was a difficult task for me at first, because I’m not good at talking positively about myself. Generic statements about what I know and broad philosophical statements are safe – but boring. I had to get over that if I wanted something worthy of attention.
For comparison, here is the letter that eventually got me the job I’m at now:
At the risk of sounding slightly unprofessional, I want to start off by saying that this sounds like the perfect position for me. Reading through it got me very excited, not only because it sounds interesting, but because I feel I can contribute quite a bit.
The details of my experience are in my resume, which I have attached. But to provide a quick summary:
* I have experience with medical software. I know the environment and culture well due to my current job at Previous Company, and I know the types of data being manipulated. You don’t mention them specifically, but CDISC, HL7 and MedDRA are all concepts I’m familiar with.
* My passion is software engineering, especially when it results in happy customers. I’ve written many lines of SQL stored procedures, and Perl backend code. And sometimes re-written it when it doesn’t provide the required performance. We get feedback from our customers constantly, and if I’ve learned nothing else from my professional experience, it’s that customers WILL find a way to break code. Being able to quickly learn, adapt and grow has been a constant theme.
* My professional experience isn’t with C#, but I use C# in personal projects — and I adore object oriented languages. I want to use C# more, and I’m disappointed that my current position doesn’t allow that. My largest and most successful personal project has been a Twitter client, which required me to learn a technology I wasn’t familiar with, and implement it from the ground up. I have no problem setting goals for myself and achieving them.
I hope I’ve conveyed my passion for software engineering, and my interest in this position. I look forward to discussing more with you.
In hindsight, I realize that I could have done better than this. But even so, the difference between this letter and the last is quite clear. No more generic phrases or lists of technologies. I tailored this exactly to what the job posting mentioned, and how my experience met their needs. It’s quick, to the point – and specific.
It’s actually quite daunting to write such a customized letter for each and every job you apply to – but it’s also an advantage. You start to realize how much you really want the job. Believe it or not, it’s difficult to sound excited about a job that you’re only applying for because it’s there. If you find yourself slipping back into generic phrases and drab lists of skills, you may want to reconsider applying. Your heart isn’t in it.
For me, getting a call back from a recruiter was the most difficult part of job hunting. I wish I had realized sooner that the cover letter is more than a formality – it makes you human.
If you’re currently looking for a job: good luck!