by Katharine Hansen
Here’s a cover-letter fact that can be sobering or comforting, depending on your perspective: According to experts in the world of recruiters/headhunters/executive-search firms, cover letters to these professionals don’t get much attention, at least not on the initial screening of your job-search materials. The resume is king in this world, and if your resume shows you to be qualified for an opening that the recruiter is trying to fill for a client, he or she at that point might take a look at your cover letter.
Recruiters expect to be able to determine a candidate’s fit with the recruiting firm’s niche, as well as his or her marketability, through the resume. “If, and only if, these requirements are satisfied by the recruiter’s examination of the resume only will he/she ever look at the cover letter,” reports Darell Gurney, author of the excellent insider’s look at the world of recruiters, Headhunters Revealed. “On the cover letter, they aren’t interested in the candidate’s self-analytical expose’ of themselves but, rather, just some basic facts. The reason they don’t need the candidates’ elaborate ideas of themselves is that the recruiter already knows what they can sell about this person from the resume.”
Ignoring the cover letter is largely a time-management issue. “Because there is so much talent on the street we just don’t have time to read a cover letter as well as a resume,” point out Darlene Nason, president of Miami’s Nason Career Management, and Dennis Nason, president of Nason and Nason Executive Search Consultants, who receive about 30 unsolicited resumes daily.
“In all my years of recruitment, I remember only one letter that really caught my eye,” says executive/technical recruiter turned resume writer/job search coach Kristen Griffin of Griffin Career Solutions. “A professional resume writer wrote it!”
For those who’ve labored over a cover letter to try to get the recruiter’s attention, this news is a little deflating. For those who find writing cover letters to be an agonizing chore, it may be good news if indeed it’s a waste of time to put a lot of effort into cover letters to these professionals.
But wait, hold on just a minute there… Just because cover letters to recruiters may not get much initial attention doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put considerable care into crafting them. If you’re qualified, the letter will, after all, be looked at eventually. A section of the recruiting Website MacTalent.com called “Tips For Dealing With Recruiters” notes that “Many cover letters aren’t read — we look for the beef on the resume, if we like what we see then we look at the cover letter.”
“I advise my clients that they must write their cover letters for the one-third to one-half of employers and recruiters who will actually read them,” notes Louise Kursmark of Best Impression Career Services, Inc., in Cincinnati. “Because there are many readers, particularly recruiters, who will ignore the cover letter,” Kursmark cautions, “candidates should be careful not to include key information in the cover letter if it is not present in the resume.”
Certain differences in letters to recruiters compared to letters to direct hiring managers indicate that even more care should go into recruiter letters. If you are in fact qualified for an opening that a recruiter is working on, your cover letter should provide crucial information that will save you and the recruiter time and aggravation down the road. Thus, it pays to attend to differences between conventional cover letters and recruiter cover letters in such areas as content, length, format, and how the letter is sent to the recruiter.
Include recruiter-specific content: Gurney writes that the five pieces of information that recruiters especially want to see are:
- All contact information (true of any cover letter)
- Reasons for leaving, why you’re on the market (sometimes included in other cover letters, but not as a general rule)
- Positions and industries of interest (with a conventional cover letter, you are usually applying, or at least should be applying, for a specific position)
- Salary history and expectations (never included in a conventional cover letter unless the employer has requested the information, and sometimes not even then).
- Locations of interest (see item 3). Variations on this theme include willingness to relocate and travel.
“Having these answers already, without having to call the candidate, allows the candidate to be put into the system immediately… without getting piled up with the hoards of other resumes needing this vital, back-up information,” Gurney says.
Some recruiters want to see even more information, such as what size company you’re interested in. One recruiting firm on the Web, Allied Healthcare International sets out a lengthy list of what is desirable to see in candidate cover letters. In addition to Gurney’s list of must-include information, this recruiting firm wants to see:
- When you are available for interviews.
- When you can begin a new assignment after an offer is given.
- List of companies and divisions that you would like to work for (that another recruiter has not already sent you to).
- Other recruiters are that you are working with and where they have sent your resume.
Griffin would suggest adding these items to the mix:
- Eye-catching intro,
- Brief summary of background using keywords (see more about keywords later in this article).
A random scan of several recruiter Websites listed at Oya’s Directory of Recruiters shows that many recruiters don’t even mention wanting to see cover letters, but those that do often list the specific content they’re looking for.
Keep it as concise as possible: Many experts and recruiters themselves note that recruiter cover letters should be on the short side, and perhaps shorter than conventional cover letters. They point out that these days, cover letters are often e-mailed to recruiters in the body of e-mail messages, further necessitating brevity.
MacTalent.com cautions candidates: “Spare the recruiter a lengthy cover letter. . . You have a greater chance of your cover letter being read if it is 1/3 to 1/2 page maximum. No need re-hash what’s on your resume and please — we don’t have time for your life story.”
But since recruiter letters also have the above-mentioned unconventional content requirements, it’s not easy to align the brevity preference with recruiters’ content needs. The best advice is to keep the letter as concise as possible while still including recruiter-desired content. Of course, brevity is a virtue in any cover letter.
Load your recruiter cover letter with keywords: More than 80 percent of resumes today are placed in databases and searched for job-specific keywords. The percentage of cover letters also placed into keyword-searchable databases is likely considerably lower, but since some letters get into the keyword-searchable database, the best strategy is load your recruiter cover letter with keywords, just as you do your resume. “To ‘load’ your resume and cover letter,” Gurney says, “means to chock them full of all key words and phrases necessary to stand out in a database search for someone with your experience, skills, certifications, background, accomplishments, location, and even desires.”
Gurney says, “Though your resume and cover letter will be seen initially by recruiters to determine whether or not you should go into the database, the only way they will see it again is if it’s fully loaded with all the words and phrases that point the way to the perfect position for you.”
Gurney, who is among the recruiters who do place cover letters in a database, notes that “on occasions, a particular word on a cover letter has popped up in a search, such as a position title or industry that the person wants but doesn’t have experience in as listed on the resume. Gurney recalls a recent situation in which a young salesperson recently sent Gurney his information. “His resume stated his top-ranked experience in copier sales, whereas his cover letter mentioned that he wanted to move into pharmaceutical or medical sales,” Gurney recalls. “The pharmaceutical companies are always looking for people with great sales background regardless of industry, so this would be an instance where it might help to have a cover letter databased, too.”
Points out Ann Baehr of Best Resumes in Long Island, NY, “Let’s not forget that keywords are also meant for the human eye. Distributing keywords throughout the cover letter, as opposed to the resume practice of listing them in groups, is still an effective strategy.”
For more about identifying and using the best keywords, see our article, Tapping the Power of Keywords to Enhance Your Resume’s Effectiveness.
Frame your letter in terms of what you can do for the recruiter’s client(s): Balancing the fact that the letter might not even get read along with the brevity aspect, include language in your letter that indicates you can solve problems, make money, save money, improve efficiency and productivity, and/or increase sales for the recruiter’s clients. It doesn’t take a great number of words to convey your potential value to the recruiter’s clients, and one of the best ways, of course, is to briefly touch on how you’ve succeeded in past positions. Here are two samples of client-focused, accomplishments-driven wording:
In addition to my strong record of solving marketing problems, my consulting background would be tremendous plus for your firm because of my exposure to a wide variety of companies instead of just one. Your client would also benefit from my unique combination of marketing expertise and knowledge of the industrial sector that is far more extensive than that of most consultants and marketers in the sector.
As President of Canadiana Resort Development Inc., I supervised an international workforce and assumed all the details of daily operations, from marketing and human resources to finance, and am poised to do the same for one of your client firms.
Try reader-friendly formats, such as a bulleted list, that enables the recruiter to zero in on your top selling points: In the time-starved world of recruiters/headhunters/executive-search firms, any device you can use to bring your main selling points to the forefront without forcing the reader to wade through a lot of text will work to your advantage. “Eye-catching bullets are key!” Griffin notes.
Our Sample Cover Letter to Recruiters includes a bulleted list of selling points. In addition, on his CareerLab Website, William Frank offers a good example of letter to a recruiter that powerfully outlines accomplishments in a bulleted list. (Note: This letter is one of Frank’s free examples; others are available for a fee.) Another serviceable example with bullets appears at the IT HeadHunter Website.
“Effective formats include a combination of paragraph and bulleted items to add clarity and impact; one or more excerpts from letters of recommendation; and the side-by-side chart-style format that answers qualification statements line-by-line (Your Qualifications/My Qualifications),” Baehr says. (See a sample of this format directed at an employer rather than a recruiter.) “This format is especially effective when a job seeker’s key qualifications exceed those that the recruiter or hiring company is asking for,” Baehr says. “It is also easier for a busy recruiter to make a client-candidate match.”
Send your cover letter in the recruiter’s preferred format: Most experts say the best format is to paste both your cover letter and resume in the body of your e-mail (in ASCII text) and attach a copy of your resume in Word, as well (some experts say attach both the resume and cover letter as one file). In particular, experts note that the cover letter should be in the body of the e-mail message and will rarely be opened if it is sent as its own attachment.
“The subject line of the e-mail is the critical piece,” notes career transition coach and consultant Randy Block. “‘Resume attached,’ or ‘No Subject,’ result in instant deletion without looking at the resume. The subject line should say [for example], ‘VP of Manufacturing,’ ‘CFO,’ etc.”
Formats for submitting your materials to the recruiter are not one-size-fits-all. In scoping out recruiter Websites, for example, we found at least one where the recruiter wanted to see resumes and cover letters sent only as attachments, never pasted into the body of the e-mail message. Others don’t want to deal with attachments at all, and many recruiters have resume submission forms on their Websites. Most submission forms have a space in which to paste one’s resume. Gurney says that if your letter contains the short, succinct information he recommends, there’s no reason that the candidate cannot also paste his or her cover letter into this space. “If it’s a long diatribe on their feelings and analysis of their career, the recruiter will likely cut it out before databasing it,” Gurney notes. Of course, some recruiters still like to have cover letters and resumes faxed to them, and a few even prefer good, old-fashioned postal mail.
To find out a given recruiter’s preferred way of receiving your cover letter, visit recruiter Websites as listed in Oya’s Directory of Recruiters. In cases where the Websites don’t reveal submission preferences, you can always contact the recruiter’s office and ask the how the firm prefers to receive cover letters and resumes. See also our Quintessential Careers Recruiter Directories & Associations.
A word of caution, though, from Darlene and Dennis Nason, whose contingency recruiting firm specializes in the financial industry: “Try not to call recruiters directly. Email is more effective, because recruiters need phone time for their searches.” For simple questions about preferred resume and cover letter submission formats, you can also call and ask the recruiting firm’s receptionist.
Don’t forget the other principles of effective cover-letter writing: Though we’ve noted some significant differences between conventional cover letters and those to recruiters, most principles of good cover-letter writing — such as avoiding typos and addressing the letter to a named individual — also apply to letters to recruiters. If you’re weak in this area, check out our Cover Letter Resources.
And, in case you missed it within the text of this article, see our Sample