Cover Letter Myths and Resume Nonsense
When it comes to know-how on finding work, most folks get their information in much the same way they learned about "the birds and bees." They get their "information" from equally uninformed peers while tiptoeing around behind the current boss's back. With nervous giggles, they repeat what they've heard on the street, and end up latching onto some very silly notions. This misinformation is a mixture of outdated notions (that which was once true and now isn't) and "common sense" (that which is widespread / popular, but was never true and never will be).

In my many consultations with individuals seeking to change careers, I've noted common misapprehensions about how best to seek work. They involve some pretty interesting thought processes:

A Cover Letter = A Form Letter

Some people may think that the following is an example of a cover letter:

"Dear Sir / Madam, Please accept this letter and resume as my application for employment with your firm. As you will see in my resume, I am loyal, brave, enthusiastic, hard-working, and I know I could do a great job for you. I would like to be earning in the range of $25,000 and $40,000. Please contact me in the event that you think my skills are a good match for this position."

And so they sign it, and neatly fold it up with a copy of their resume, put it in a cute little matching envelope, and send it off. Then they wait by the phone for an ecstatic hiring professional to call them up and beg for an interview. Class, what is wrong with this picture? If you answered "everything" then you're absolutely right.

To be effective, a cover letter should be written to a human being (NEVER to "Sir/Madam", unless you're applying to a circus, and the HR director also happens to be the half man/half woman sideshow attraction).

This human being has a name and a title, and works with a specific company, and knows something about a specific position. Tell the human being to whom you are writing what you think would be intrinsically motivating about working there. Recap every communication you've had with the firm so far. Tell the human being that you'd like an interview, and that you'll bear the responsibility for following up on that request. "Impossible!" you may cry. "Do some research!" is my reply. You'll be many times over more successful if you take the time to write a real letter instead of a form letter.

The "General Resume"

"Well, you see, I don't want to 'limit' myself to what sorts of jobs I can pursue, so I'd like to make my resume as general as possible." So, while you're at it, design me a fishing apparatus that will catch a minnow or a salmon with equal effectiveness. Or how about a golf club that works for drives, sand traps, and putting? I think you get the picture... in trying to be all things to all people, a job seeker writing a general resume dramatically diminishes effectiveness. I suppose this idea first came up when we were tapping out our resumes on typewriters. But with the wonders of word processing, it's terribly easy to develop targeted resumes. Of course, knowing exactly what you'd like to do is an even better approach.

When many people think "resume," they think of a dry, boring list of all the jobs they've held. They mistakenly think that you can't talk about a skill or ability unless it is presented along with the school or employer who helped you develop it. With the wimpy objective statement and generalized approach, the resume "wanders" and fails to give the reader an inkling that the subject is indeed a valuable human being. It gets so dull, in fact, that some people try to spice it up with information on what they do in their personal time "I enjoy spoon collecting, double coupon-ing, and square dance calling." And finally, what better way to let the reader know you're done boring him/her to death than to end with "Excellent References on Request?"

The "Objective" Statement

As with the above scenario, many people feel that they need to share their hopes and dreams for career fulfillment with the reader of their resume, again while avoiding specifics. Picture the recruiter / human resources professional with 250 resumes to review, who has to read the following mantra over and over and over again:

"My career objective is to obtain a challenging, growth-oriented position with a dynamic company that best utilizes my education, experience, and abilities."

If you're going to use a separate objective statement, why not make it meaningful? "Bottom-line accountability in a Project Management role with a forward-thinking start-up computer company" would be music to the ears of a recruiter looking for a Project Manager for a company that fits that description. Yes, this may mean multiple versions of your resume... but since we're taking about your livelihood here... so it's probably wise not to take the path of least resistance.

I'm here to tell you that this is not the most intelligent way to find a great new job. Here's my best recommendation: know clearly what you want to do and what type of company you'd like to join. Package your qualifications in a focused way that presents you as a unique individual who can succeed in a specific environment. Put your best foot forward at the beginning of the resume, creating energy, enthusiasm, and flow. Back up your claims of greatness with verifiable achievement statements. Make sure every word on the page has a reason for being there.

Of course, resumes and cover letters alone won't get you a job, but this article is right at 1,050 words, so we'll have to write another one some day. Taking a thoughtful, targeted approach in the written portion of your job search campaign will increase your chances of success dramatically.