cover letters

The importance of cover letters in the hiring process

July 20, 2009 Job hunting 1 comment

Jeffrey Thalhammer, who last wrote for The Working Geek on “On breadth vs. depth of technical knowledge”, has strong opinions about resumes and cover letters:

Last week, my wife attended a “resume bootcamp” seminar. Among other things, I asked her what the seminar recommended for cover letters. According to the speakers at this seminar, the resume is far more important the cover letter, and they de-emphasized letter-writing skills. I was shocked!

In my experience with hiring, I’m far more impressed by a compelling and concise cover letter than a long and esteemed resume. To me, a resume is like a PowerPoint presentation and I don’t mean that in a good way. It is usually a dust-dry list of bullets and broken sentences that lack any texture or color. Reading a resume is never fun or even interesting.

On the other hand, the cover letter is an opportunity to tell me a story that holds my attention and helps me understand you. As an expository document, rather than a declarative one, your cover letter can leverage all the literary devices of your language: cadence, phrasing, metaphors, symbolism, vocabulary, etc. These are what make your cover letter interesting, and make me want to talk to you.

A good cover letter indicates your ability to communicate with others, and in the software industry, it also indicates your ability to write code. If you can’t express yourself elegantly in your natural language, then you probably can’t express yourself elegantly in code either. I realize this judgment is harder to make with those who don’t natively speak your language, but fundamentally, I believe it is still true.

This doesn’t mean that you should write a five-page cover letter for each job — economy of words is still important. Consider writing your cover letter as if you wanted to thrill the reader with a summary of the exotic vacation you took last month. Tell them what you did, why you did it, how it affected you, and why the reader should be interested in your story. Make it exciting and fascinating to read. Show me your energy, your style, and your personality. And of course, be professional too.

In their defense, the speakers at the resume bootcamp were all HR recruiters. Often times, recruiters are given only a list of keywords and skills associated with a job, and instructed to harvest as many compatible resumes as possible. From that perspective, I can understand why they would put so much more emphasis on the resume. But once the resume gets to a hiring manager, I think the cover letter becomes a much sharper image of the candidate. So in the end, you really need to have the total package: a great cover letter and resume. But don’t neglect one for the other.

A note for hiring managers: If your HR department does not pass along the candidates’ cover letters, you’re not getting the whole picture on your job candidates. Ask your recruiters to pass along the cover letters and all the correspondence associated with any resume they submit to you. You can learn a lot by looking at how a candidate interacts with recruiters in the early stages of the hiring process.

Jeff Thalhammer has been specializing in Perl software development for over 10 years. He is the senior engineer and chief janitor at Imaginative Software Systems, a small software consultancy based in San Francisco. Jeff is also the creator of Perl-Critic, the leading static analysis tool for Perl.

Twelve items to leave off your resume and cover letter

November 4, 2006 Job hunting No comments , ,

You’re working on your resume, trying to give the recipient an idea of what a determined, hard worker you are, and you drop in this sentence.

After my wife and I arrived from Germany at age 35, I trained my son to play piano at our church.

You’re showing that you’re a committed family man with strong roots in your heritage, that you have the skills to raise a child, and you’re active in your church community, right? Wrong. You’re making the person reading the resume very nervous, and probably excluded yourself from a job. That one little sentence covered five bits of information it’s illegal for an interviewer to ask you.

  • Are you married?
  • What country are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Do you go to church? Which one?

Providing information that is not relevant to the job, or would get me, as a hiring manager, in trouble if I asked for it, makes me very nervous.

The rule to follow is: If the employer can’t ask you, then don’t volunteer it.

I once got a cover letter that started “As a proud black woman, I am…” It immediately went into the discard pile. Not only was it foolish for her to put her gender and race on her resume, because I was not legally allowed to ask it, it made me wonder why would she tell me those things. Could I expect someone with a big chip on her shoulder? If I didn’t hire her, would I get accusations of racism and sexism?

The following items should never be mentioned on your resume or cover letter, or discussed in an interview, even indirectly:

  • Age
  • Sex/gender
  • Disability
  • Race/color
  • National origin, birthplace, ethnic background
  • Religion
  • Marital status
  • Children/pregnancy

These are the big eight that are just absolute no-nos, and that most people know are illegal. Nobody reading this article is being cast in a movie that needs a 65-year-old wheelchair-bound Jewish man, so none of those are bona fide occupational qualifications, or BFOQs.

Sometimes unscrupulous employers can ask questions that get at this information. For instance, if you answer the question “when did you graduate high school?” with “1984”, he’s found that you’re roughly 39. By extension, you should leave dates of high school off your resume.

Other items that may not be illegal, but may cause problems, include:

  • Appearance, including photo
  • Sexual preference
  • Political affiliations
  • Clubs or groups you belong to, unless professionally related

There may be exceptions in certain cases. For example, my friend Tom Limoncelli is socially and politically active. In 2003-2004, he worked as a sysadmin for the Howard Dean presidential campaign. In this case, working for Dean is valuable work experience that should be noted on his resume, and it directly relates to the work that he’s known for.

Clubs and groups may not be obvious red flags, but are best left alone. To you, it might be cool that you race motorcycles on the weekend, but someone reading your resume might judge you as having a hobby that’s detrimental to the environment, or overly risky. Your weekend volunteer work at Planned Parenthood could be a black mark in the eyes of someone strongly pro-life.

The type of outside work is relevant, too. Handing out literature for an activist group has no place on a resume, but that might not be the case if you overhauled their web site using PHP. It partly depends on what job you’re applying for. You might exclude your Planned Parenthood website work if applying to a Catholic school, but include it when applying to Ben & Jerry’s. This is another example of why there’s no such thing as having “a resume”, a single static document you send around.

In general, follow the rule that if something does not directly relate to your skills, and how you would perform the job in question, leave it out.

You might think “I wouldn’t want to work for someone who would discriminate against me because I fit into group X,” but that’s not the point. The issue isn’t overt discrimination as much as the perception of the possibility of discrimination. I wouldn’t discriminate against a black woman, but I did immediately exclude someone naive or foolish enough to mention being one.

Finally, even if all this verboten information is available on the web with minimal web searching, it’s not OK to put on your resume. The issue is what you present as yourself, not what people can find.

And don’t think employers won’t search Google about you extensively before interviewing. But that’s a topic for another article…

For more information about hiring discrimination, see the EEOC website.