Thoughts, Ideas, and Concepts by Sandra Parks

Posts tagged ‘winning’

Getting Your Cover Letter Noticed

ResumeIf you’ve looked for a job in the past few years, you’re likely aware that employers are finding new ways to use resumes as screening tools. Web sites (TheLadders included) devote thousands of pages to discussing the best practices of resume writing. Meanwhile, a cottage industry has grown up around certified professional resume writers (CPRWs) who study the art and technique of producing a resume with the best chance of navigating the software and human readers who review and judge your document.

While experts talk less about cover letters, they must navigate the same course as your resume. If the sources are quiet on cover letters, do they matter anymore?

Yes, said CPRWs, ATS vendors and human-resource managers who handle the documents at both ends of the process.

Granted, your resume is center stage. Your cover letter may not be read at all, and it won’t salvage a poor resume, but it must be crafted just as carefully to satisfy software algorithms and HR screeners.

The introduction of the ATS as a first link in the chain has changed everything about the writing process, say CPRWs and HR managers. Like your resume, your cover letter has little room for error and demands exacting attention to structure and usage of keywords.

To determine the best rules for writing a cover letter, TheLadders asked the experts how cover letters are handled throughout the process.

Do you need a cover letter?

To start with, do you even need a cover letter?

Technology-wise, some ATSes treat cover letters as searchable text, the same as your resume; many don’t. Human process-wise, however, it’s the rare recruiter who even bothers to pass cover letters on to hiring managers.

But that doesn’t mean that you should stop writing them. Cover letters are a concise way to communicate your value to a company, and some recruiters and hiring managers do use them to winnow candidates. They demonstrate your attention to detail and anticipation of the company’s needs. Finally, small employers don’t necessarily employ ATSes, meaning your cover letter will more likely be read by human eyes.

How an ATS handles a cover letter

Nathan Shackles is a sales manager for ApplicantStack, an ATS made by Racarie Software and one of the software programs that render cover letters as searchable text. Shackles said that, like many ATSes, the application accepts cover letters as text pasted into its online form, not as an attachment. Therefore, the application stores cover letters with the resume as searchable text.

“I’d say this is fairly common, that cover letters are searchable,” Shackles said. “Because often, people will describe technologies in their cover letters and not put them in their resumes, for whatever reason. That’s the reason we search the cover letter as well.”

From that vantage point, Shackles recommends that job seekers look at the cover letter as a way to put in additional skills and credentials to add additional searchable keywords that a company may have programmed in the ATS to identify candidates for a specific job posting.

Your e-mail is the cover letter

Many ATSes, including ApplicantStack, also process resumes received via e-mail. In those cases, the ATS renders the content of your e-mail as the cover letter and assumes any attachment is your resume. Thus, when asked to e-mail a resume as an attachment, assume your e-mail content will be saved as a cover letter and write it accordingly.

On the flip side are ATSes that only process resumes, not cover letters. Tom Boyle is director of product strategy at one such ATS vendor, SilkRoad Technology.

Most ATS programs update or create a job seeker’s profile by uploading a resume; next, they cherry-pick information to parse and fill in the fields to create a profile within the ATS. While Boyle has seen ATS software parse “all sorts of resumes and formats,” he noted that SilkRoad only renders cover letters as attachments and doesn’t divide it up into fields.

That means the ATS doesn’t render your cover letter as searchable text. Thus, finessing the cover to make it machine-friendly by seeding it with keywords won’t influence your application’s ranking with this type of ATS.

Once a cover letter has become an attachment, it’s unlikely that it will be searched and processed like a resume, Boyle said, given that the number of ATS programs that have the ability to search an attachment on a candidate’s profile is “very small.”

How do humans process your cover letter?

What happens to your cover letter once it reaches human hands?

David Couper, a career coach, said that the recruiters at most Fortune 500 companies don’t even send him the cover letter, let alone scan it into an ATS.

His experience is backed up by research conducted by Phil Rosenberg, president of reCareered, an executive career-coaching service. Over the past two years, Rosenberg has surveyed hundreds of HR managers and recruiters and interviewed management at the Top 10 job boards. He found that:

  • Less than 10 percent of HR departments scan cover letters.
  • Eighty percent of HR staff, hiring managers and recruiters read the resume first.
  • Job boards don’t keyword-search cover letters, only resumes.

However, don’t count those cover letters out. According to the survey:

  • Most hiring managers have denied interviews to candidates qualified by their resumes, but disqualified by additional information in their cover letters.
  • Tailor the resume as well as the cover letter

Couper advises his clients that you just never know whether someone is going to read the cover letter and whether it will make or break your application. “I recommend that the job hunter matches the job posting and includes keywords,” he said. “I also suggest that you lead in with a hook, preferably a personal contact, to someone the recruiting manager knows or some specific information that relates to the company or industry. … The cover (letter) is one of those items that you never know about but in the end you hope that it gets to someone — not a machine — and they read it.”

But this attention to customized cover letters may be missing the mark as far as achieving a high ATS ranking. Rosenberg noted that most candidates “put the majority of their customization (if any) in their application in a cover letter, using a largely static resume.”

Job seekers do that in the hope that the words on their resume “magically match the keywords a company’s HR department or recruiters are searching for in their prescreening process,” he said. But the odds of matching keywords between a job listing and an uncustomized resume “stink,” Rosenberg said, generating response rates that range between 0 percent and 5 percent in healthy hiring years and sank to less than 2 percent in the current job market. Hence, he advises clients to spend more time customizing their resumes than tinkering with their cover letters.

What’s the safest thing to do? Tailor both your resume and your cover letter to match specific job listings. Mandy Minor, a resume writer with J Allan Studios, handles the possibility of ATS scanning by giving her clients several choices of what to use in a cover letter:

“I build a template with phrases such as, ‘I am an accomplished [CHOOSE ONE: marketing manager or marketing director or project manager]’ so that they can pick the title that will line up best for each job opening,” she said. “I also use industry keywords in a brief, bulleted list of accomplishments in the cover letter, which gets the attention of not just the ATS but also the human reader.”

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Resumes!

A job title can make or break a good first impression. You certainly don’t want to lie about your job history, but you do want to be descriptive. For example, “Accounting” is too vague, while “Management of A/R and A/P and Recordkeeping” carries both far more information and way more impact. How do you make sure the job title you use on your resume will be accurate and impactful?

We’re not talking about changing the title or position you held in a previous job, said Marsh Sutherland, president of Walden Recruiting. There’s no way he’d tinker with a client’s actual title, he said. Doing so “could be considered misrepresentation” on both his part and that of his client — far too steep a price to pay in return for more impressive-sounding titles. We’re talking about the title of your resume, what you call yourself and how you define what you do.

Top of the resume

The job seeker’s title sits at the top of the resume above her Summary section, right below her name and contact information. Sutherland said he usually advises his clients to take cues from the job they’ve applied for. “I will often put the title of the job (on the top) so at first glance it appears the candidate is a perfect fit,” Sutherland says. “For instance, I am currently sourcing candidates for a Search Engine Optimization Analyst position. Guess what? I put ‛SEO Analyst Professional’ at the top of my resume submissions.”

Typical title mistakes

One common mistake seen by Beth Colley, principal of Chesapeake Resume Writing, is not including a title anywhere on the resume.

Another mistake she often sees is when job seekers include the old-fashioned “Objective” section, a section that nowadays is considered irrelevant and whose inclusion marks the resume subject as being out of touch with the current professional resume format. It might have been acceptable in years past to start a resume with an objective about how a job seeker is “seeking a position where I can utilize my gifts and talents in marketing and advance to a level of increasing responsibility,” but nowadays an objective at the top of the page simply means a job seeker is thinking of himself, not how he can help his potential employer.

Colley also sees unacceptably vague titles such as one resume that said “Public Advocate.” That job seeker’s profile included her “ability to direct complex projects from concept to fully operational status,” and it mentioned personality details such as being “highly organized” and a “detailed problem solver” who was “self-directed” and “creative.”

Just what type of public advocate, for what industry, was “not clear,” Colley says, “I totally didn’t understand what she was looking for.”

How to craft a title that’s broad, specific and narrowly targeted

Colley advises job seekers to use a “fairly broad title” that still targets the right industry but to then pair it with something they possess that’s in high demand in their industry.

Colley sets this type of title up in the format of “Broad title”—“Specific industry,” “Specialized skills or certifications.” For example, rather than using a broad title such as Project Manager, which could “literally be anything from construction to IT,” she advises her clients to use a slightly more targeted title heading. Some examples:

  • Project Manager – IT Industry, DOD contractor with active Top Secret Clearance
  • Project Manager – Civil Engineering, LEED & GBE Certified

Here are some other examples Colley cited that expand on less-informative titles such as CFO or Customer Service Representative:

  • Chief Financial Officer – CPA, MBA with Controller and Financial Analyst Expertise
  • Customer Service Representative – Inbound Call Center, 8 years of experience

“The whole point of resume development is to target the resume to a particular field or industry,” Colley said. “Job titles vary from one company to the next, so you want to pick a title that is recognizable to most employers and recruiters. By highlighting a marketable aspect about yourself or industry, the recruiter/employer will read for further information to see if you ‛fit the bill.’ Remember, if they read your resume for more than 15-20 seconds and you get a phone call, the resume has effectively done its job.”

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