Sending a Bad Cover Letter is Like Taking Your Date to the Drive-Thru

Bad cover letters are like drive-thru dating. Here’s why: hastily dashing off a cover letter is as likely to make a negative first impression as asking someone out on a date and then failing to put in the effort.

I would bet we can all agree that taking your date (especially a new one) through the drive-thru and munching on fries in the car – rather than an actual dinner that requires planning, some risk, thought and a small capital outlay – usually doesn’t bode well for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. The reason is obvious. A drive-thru date lacks the three C’s: creativity, curiosity and care.

A poorly written cover-letter lacks the three C’s:

creativity, curiosity (about the employer and its needs) and care.

Yet job candidates send what I would call “just plain bad” cover letters all the time to potential employers. That is, they send letters that clearly indicate they were in a rush, not wanting to take the time or spend the energy to understand the role or even make a good first impression.

Alternatively, they skip the cover letter altogether, which is like saying to that same date, “let’s take a drive past the fast food joints in town and not eat at all, because I couldn’t be bothered to plan or pay for dinner.” While some employers (and dates) don’t fuss over such details or want you bad enough to overlook this faux pas, there’s an etiquette to job submissions that should not be ignored unless you’re fortunate enough to fit into one of the exceptions above.

shutterstock_38753659 (drive thru)

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a referral source who dispenses with the need for cover letters or you are a highly sought-after candidate (read: they want you badly enough), cover letters are part of the job search etiquette and should not be ignored.

To put it very simply: if you don’t write a strong, well-worded and error free letter, you may cost yourself a $60K, $100K or even $250K+ job. Put into more specific monetary terms, if you are unemployed, each month you are out of work is  1/12th of that amount. Alternatively, if you are in a job you hate, that same lost month can make you more discouraged and less motivated about going to work, getting out of bed during the week or finding a way to improve your situation. Short answer: getting your cover letters nailed down, in style and substance, is essential to any job search.

How can I make my cover letter stand out?

I hear this question all the time from my clients: how can I write an amazing cover letter that will get their attention? Truth be told, when I first started writing résumés, I thought that if I got the hard part (the résumé) out of the way, the rest (the cover letter) would be easy. Yet it isn’t so. The mental block that accompanies cover letters is just as strong as the one for résumés. In addition, the potential for missteps is equally high, which is unfortunate for job candidates, since the cover letter is often the document that triggers a make-or-break first impression.

Here are some basic factors to consider as you are writing a cover letter:

First, your cover letter should be written to a person. It’s not a love letter (or an actual date), of course, but your cover letter should nonetheless engage your reader. While keywords are important for automated submissions, a simple rehash of your résumé with the name of the position listed above and a “please contact me” closing paragraph do not a great cover letter make.

You are writing to a person. Make sure he or she wants to read it.

I’ve mentioned this to clients and in groups, and I am always surprised when I say, “Imagine you are the person receiving the letter.” I see a lightbulb go off. Yes, you are writing to a person. Someone who got out of bed in the morning just like you, wants to impress his or her boss with a good hire and may have the office next to you for the next ten years. Write to that person.

If you don’t have a particular person to whom you can address the letter, you can direct it to “Ladies and Gentlemen.” But remember, while it is not addressed to a specific individual, it will be read by a person at some point in the process. If you were an actor on stage you may not know who comprises your audience, but you would know (or assume) there is an audience. In too many cases to count, I have seen cover letters which appear to have been written under the premise that they will never actually be read.

Second, your cover letter should indicate that you have actually read the job description and want the job. Put down the pen or keyboard for a moment. Imagine that you are the potential interviewer, and you have two cover letters in front of you. In one, there is a generic rehashing of the person’s résumé or watered-down description of his or her skills. In the other, the candidate exudes confidence and demonstrates an understanding of and genuine interest in the needs of the employer. Which one makes you want to move to the next step with the candidate? For the avoidance of doubt, my vote is with cover letter #2. The first one is destined for the trash can, with as little aim and initiative as its writer had showed when sending it.

Third, your cover letter should explain why you are the right person to fill the job. How specifically can you add value to the organization and what examples can you give to show that you have made similar contributions in other roles? I am not suggesting that you need to show you are a round peg to fit into a round hole, but you do need to connect the dots for the interviewer, rather than expect him or her to do that for you. Again, comparing to the drive-thru example, if you couldn’t be bothered to make even a basic plan for your date, what can you possibly expect in return?

Fourth, delete any language that doesn’t communicate why you should be hired. Space is at a premium. Use it well.  

I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.
– Attributed to Mark Twain, Blaise Pascal and others

Fifth, if you need to explain a gap or other detracting element of your work history, give it a positive spin. Negativity is one of the biggest turn-offs in the job interview process, and starting a paragraph with “I am currently unemployed but….” or “although I have taken five years off from working….” can sound like you are someone who dwells on the downside. What can you offer to make yourself a compelling candidate while gently explaining what might otherwise be a red flag? Again, imagine you are the interview. What would make he or she excited about hiring you? How did you take that blow or setback and learn from it or create something positive with it?

Sixth, write well and proofread zealously. Even if writing won’t be a significant component of your job (and for most of us, it is), consider the cover letter an audition for how well you’ll write for the company. 

Lastly, read it again and make sure you cover the three C’s. Does your cover letter show creativity, differentiating it from all the other cover letters on the block? Does it demonstrate a curiosity about the company and the role, as well as what you could add to it? Finally, is it written with care, rather than a simple “drive-thru style” of how many cover letters you could bang out in a day?

If your job search has dragged on or been unnecessarily delayed, you may feel sometimes as if quantity – i.e., number of applications submitted – is what matters most. In the current job market, in which there can be thousands of applicants for each job, nothing could be further from the truth. Take the time to get it right.

Anne Marie Segal is a résumé writer and a career and leadership coach to attorneys, executives and entrepreneurs. You can find her website here.

WRITING SERVICES include attorney and executive résumés, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, bios, websites and other career and business communications.

COACHING SERVICES include career coaching, networking support, interview preparation, LinkedIn training, personal branding, leadership and change management.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse.