Boutique Search Services for Higher Education and Nonprofit

Cover Letters Do Make a Difference

Beth Baldino, Senior Consultant

My Experience Shows That Cover Letters Do Make A Difference – Here’s Why…

Cover Letters Do MatterAs a search consultant who requests cover letters from applicants for my management / executive-level positions in higher education and nonprofit organizations, I have read more cover letters than I can count! I’ve also worked, extensively, with hiring managers and search committees and I can verify that they do read these letters. I’m amazed at how many times a search committee member will reference something from a cover letter as a primary reason for disinterest in a candidate. And the same is true in reverse, a comment in a cover letter can seal the deal when a search committee sees that the applicant took the time to really connect themselves to the job or to the hiring organization.

These written introductions to who you are and why you’re a match for the position will represent you before you have a chance to engage personally with the institution/organization you want to work for. Your letter really can make a difference in how your candidacy will be perceived. Your cover letter is uniquely you and reflects the level of interest and attention that you are paying. Writing a strong letter is an ideal and relatively easy way to differentiate your job application. I wish more people would take full advantage of this opportunity.

Here are some suggestions for impressing your potential employer with a targeted, comprehensive, and professionally presented cover letter:

  • Be specific in your reference to the institution/organization and the position you’re interested in. Hiring managers and search committees really want to know that you have specific interest in their opportunity and aren’t just applying broadly and indiscriminately. Be sure to mention both the job and the institution/organization in your letter (and be especially careful if you’re sending out multiple applications that you change this reference in each letter). Read through the position posting carefully, and possibly do a little of your own research to better understand the institution/organization. Briefly describe a few ways in which you’re excited about this particular opportunity based on what you’ve learned.
  • Be clear about your relevant career experience. If the position posting indicates “Must have at least five years of experience supervising staff,” don’t rely on the reviewer to guess whether and which of your jobs involved this responsibility; point out where you did this work, for how long, and share some details. You certainly don’t need to reference all the responsibilities of every job you’ve had, but you’d be well-served to include a summary statement related to any of the required qualifications.
  • Highlight your record of success. Today, most interview questions are “behaviorally based.” This approach, which is focused on understanding what a person has done in specific employment-related situations, begins with the assessment of your application paperwork. It is generally believed that what you have done in the past is likely to predict what you will do in the future – thus it is beneficial to think about how you have moved the needle with respect to your work and be prepared to speak to this record as you move forward in the interview process. Your letter gives you a chance to address your top successes, right up front, and makes it clear that your work has had positive impact. Pick a few (2-3) relevant examples that link to the job and highlight them.
  • Don’t forget to proof your document…carefully! Don’t overlook the simple and effective tool of proofreading. The best practice is to have someone else read it, as it’s easy to miss minor mistakes when you’ve been looking at the same sentences for a long time. An objective reviewer can also assess the degree to which your presentation is well-organized and easy to follow. There are also great on-line tools you can use for proofing, including Grammarly.
  • Sometimes less is more. The trend is away from exhaustive lengthy cover letters. Of course, this varies by industry and type of job. For academic positions in higher education, the norm is longer form letters. But even in this case, if you can say it in 4 or 5 pages instead of 10, that’s the better bet.

Finally, if you’re applying for a position that is posted via a search firm, don’t hesitate to reach out to the recruiting consultant with questions before you write your letter. I am always happy to spend a few minutes with a candidate to explain what I know. Search consultants will often tell you what is most important to their clients and describe the biggest priorities for the role. This information gives you an advantage in tailoring your letter so that it addresses the right subjects.

While it does take some extra time to approach your letter in the ways I have described, the payoff will be worth the small investment of time.

Author Beth Baldino, MSW, Sr. Consultant

Beth has over 20 years of experience in human resources and recruiting. She has been with Summit Search Solutions, Inc. since 2009. Beth fills numerous senior management positions, specialized senior administrative roles and academic positions in educational institutions and nonprofit organizations. Click here to view Beth’s bio.