what’s wrong with my cover letter?

A reader writes:

I’m actively job-hunting, and I’ve had no luck getting interviews. People tell me that I’m great in person, so I have to assume that I’m doing something terribly wrong when I represent myself on paper. I recently received feedback that I’m giving “too much” information to the HR rep/hiring manager, so I wanted to submit the question, “How much is too much?”

For reference, I generally include an opening statement in my cover letter/cover email that reads, “My name is Jane Doe, and I’m interested in the [position]. I believe marketers need to know their customers, and cut through the clutter. Right now, you as a hiring manager are my customer, and I know you’re probably a little bored with all the resumes on plain white paper. So, I’d like to invite you to check out a quick presentation that highlights my skills and accomplishments, get to know me in a short interview video, or read through my blog. I realize that sometimes people prefer the traditional route, so feel free to skip the bells and whistles, and go straight to my resume.” (The underlined words are links in the real version.)

I continue with a paragraph that details the skills that relate to the specific position, and I often include links to examples of those skills in action, similar to the formatting shown above. I’ve read through a couple of the great cover letters you’ve posted on your blog, and I feel that I do strike a tone of interest, personality, and qualifications vs. boring regurgitation. However, I’m clearly falling flat, as I’ve yet to receive an interview! I would appreciate any thoughts from you or your readers that would improve my chances of landing the interview.

Two immediate problems that I see:

1. You’re coming across as too salesy/presumptuous with this sentence: “I know you’re probably a little bored with all the resumes on plain white paper.”  You don’t know that — many of us aren’t bored with them at all, and it’s mildly annoying to be told that we are … and it’s more-than-mildly alarming to think you’re willing to make these kinds of assumptions when you don’t know your audience. This would be true in any field, but especially in marketing.

2. You’re also implying that you know better than we do what information we want. We ask for a cover letter and resume because that’s the most efficient way for us to quickly see who you are as a candidate. If we like what we see, we may want more, and at that point might decide to check out your blog, etc. But we want the cover letter and resume first, because that’s what works best for us — that’s why we ask for them.  It would be highly inefficient to sit through a presentation or watch a video before we even know if you’re a strong candidate. After all, the majority of candidates aren’t strong candidates, so purely statistically speaking, you’re not likely to be either. We don’t have time to watch videos and presentations before we’ve determined you’re someone we’re interested in. (This is one of the many reasons that video resumes won’t ever take off — you can’t scan them like you can a resume.)

You should feel free to include links to this stuff in your materials, but don’t open with it and don’t imply that we’d obviously prefer this stuff. We don’t.

And don’t go overboard with the links themselves — a maximum of three or four between the cover letter and resume combined. You’ve got to keep in mind that reviewing resumes is a quick process; it’s not a lengthy time investment, at least not at this stage.

Marketing is partly about knowing your audience, and in this case here’s what (most of) your audience wants:  a clearly organized and concise resume that makes the chronology of your career clear and emphasizes your accomplishments, and a cover letter (no longer than a page) that explains in a compelling way why you’d excel at this job. That’s it. Try that and see if you start getting better results.

{ 129 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    I’ve been waiting for a post to brag about this and I’m thrilled to finally have an excuse…

    I took a job about 6 months ago because I was an unemployed recent grad and was thrilled someone was willing to interview, let alone hire me. The job is a terrible fit and since then I have discovered AAM.

    When I decided to start job searching again I switched to the format AAM encourages on her site and an application to my dream job I thought I was barely qualified for has resulted in an interview with specific compliments from the hiring manager on my cover letter.

    Follow AAM’s guidance – she really knows what she’s talking about!

      1. Anonymous Above

        To follow up, I had my interview yesterday and it went really well, until I asked your “Magic Question”…then it went AMAZING.

        My interviewer lit up and we had a really enthusiastic conversation. Since he’d only started in his job a few months ago I modified the question a bit and learned a lot about his management style, which was very important to me since part of why I’m leaving my current position is poor management.

        This all happened during the “Do you have any questions for me?” portion of the interview, when he finished answering the question he mentioned that he still has a few more interviews to do but asked about when I would possibly be able to start and gave me more details about the jobs salary and benefits (which I took as a good sign). I may not get the job but the “Magic Question” definitely works when it comes to getting an employers attention!

        1. Anonymous Above

          And, last update from me…one day after interviewing I have been offerred my dream position!

          Seriously people, listen to AAM’s advice, I would not have gotten this far without her guidance!

    1. Liz T

      Same–after becoming an AAM devotee, I was told in an interview that mine was “hands down” the best cover letter the company had received. (I didn’t get that job, for good reasons, but they called me up later and offered me a different one.)

      1. BL

        I also got my current position in large part due to my cover letter. I rewrote it after Alison posted a sample of a great cover letter here. Everyone in the department told me that it was one of the best cover letters they had ever seen. One of my co-workers joked that when she went to look for a new job, she was going to have me write her cover letter. I referred all of them to this blog.

    2. Val

      Same here! To land my current job (for a company I had interviewed with years ago, and was rejected from), I read AAM’s cover letter advice religiously (and, um, the entire blog archives), and redid my cover letter.

      When I heard from the HR recruiter, inviting me to come in for a small open house style interview, he mentioned that he only had my cover letter, and no resume – apparently they had somehow gotten separated (the company’s online job application was rather unwieldy – I’m not surprised that it somehow got lost in the shuffle).

      So I guess my cover letter was enough to get me in the door! And of course, AAM’s other advice was enough to get me through the open house and followup interviews.

        1. K

          Not to hijack this post, but AAM your MP3 that comes along with your eBook is great! I’ve used a few of those questions in my interviews and they always respond with, “Oh wow, that’s a good question,”. I actually had an interviewer tell me that he loved that I had questions. He kept repeating, “I like that, I like that…”

          Trust the AAM!

            1. SB

              I’m a big fan of Alison’s interview tips as well. The one that really changed my mindset was to calm your nerves during interviews by thinking that you are interviewing the company/position as well. I used this thinking process at my last (successful) interview with two benefits. First, I wasn’t nervous at all during the interview (probably also helped by how friendly the interviewers/my current managers were). Second, I had come with tons of question to ask about the position/company, which made me look very enthusiastic about this position. Frankly I think I may have asked 30% of the questions during the interview so it really felt like a conversation rather than an interrogation for me. I should add here that at both of my two interviews for this position there was only one interviewer each time.

              Thanks Alison. I really believe that following your advice help me get a job after a year of unemployment.

    3. Kat

      Ditto! I landed my dream job a month ago, and they specifically mentioned my cover letter as the reason why they called me in for an interview. I’m basically entry-level, and they chose me over much more experienced folks for the position because they could tell I really believed in the mission of their organization. :)

  2. Nell

    I recently accepted a job after a year and a half of searching. The thing I noticed with cover letters was that it wasn’t always read entirely. I often gave a link to my online portfolio in the 3rd paragraph, but it was over looked or not read that far. However if my resume and the 1st paragraph of the cover letter drew them in they would often ask for a link.

    Like Alison mentioned they want simple and clean. One company advertisted on a local site & received 45 resumes in 5 days. So be sure that you follow only what they want, but show some personality in the cover letter!
    Best of luck!!

    1. JT

      In addition to where ever it makes sense to put a link in the body of a letter, I think it should also be in the address block of your letter and resume. That’s the place for web addresses. THe URL has to be short and easy to type – such as youname.com or something similar.

  3. Interviewer

    For the love of all things holy, please take down any interview videos or presentation videos. Instead, highlight actual achievements via a virtual portfolio (if prior clients are okay with you using their materials for that purpose). I really don’t want to see you prior to the interview, it could lead to all sorts of assumptions as to why I picked you (gender, race, etc.).

    And AAM, I beg to amend your statement to include only ONE link in a cover letter. If it’s a position focused on editing copy all day long, then link to your blog. If it’s a position where you are creating ads, link to your portfolio. But one link in a cover letter is plenty, and you should mention the link itself as briefly as possible, describing whatever the connection is to the job. The great resume should be what drives me to go back to the cover letter and click on that link. And if I want to see more, it should be easy enough to find the rest via that one link, not three or four separate ones nested back in your cover letter.

    Hope that helps.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I clarified in the post — three or four between the resume and cover letter combined, not three or four in the cover letter. And one would be better, although I can imagine some circumstances where it would truly be valuable to link to more than one real-life pieces of work, like writing samples (but not a video intro!).

    2. Mario

      I agree that you should link to a portfolio. Not a shower of links in the cover letter. I even think it is more appropriate in you resume. This way you keep you cover letter to the point, without too much of the sales pitch.

  4. fposte

    The interview video especially suggests either an unfamiliarity with procedure or an attempt to slide around it, since you’re handing an interview to somebody who doesn’t know yet if they want to interview you. And you’re decrying clutter even as you send people clutter, which probably isn’t an irony lost on your recipients.

    I like the personable tone; I just think you’re making the old mistake of trying to depart from convention in order to be noticed, without realizing that convention is what’s asked for.

  5. Liz T

    Out of curiosity, Alison: do you read resume and cover letter in any particular order? For example, do you not read a cover letter unless you see that the applicant has the basic qualifications and such? Or do you not bother with the resume unless you see the applicant can communicate like a human being?

    Or neither.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It kind of varies — I’d like to say that I always look at the resume first, since that would make sense, but sometimes I do start with the cover letter. It’s fairly random.

      1. KayDay

        One of the best bits of advice I got from my career center was to assume that your cover letter will be read after your resume. (the point being to encourage us to focus on adding value with the cover letter and not summarizing the resume or “introducing” yourself). When I screened applications for new employees at my jobs, I scanned the resume before reading the cover letter.

  6. OP here

    OP here – Thanks for the reply and comments. Now I’m tempted to post a link to my resume and open it up to feedback!

    Part of the impetus for sending all the “extras” mentioned in my letter, is the success stories that I keep hearing from around the internet and anecdotal evidence. Especially for marketing, the stories seem to indicate that “bells and whistles” are absolutely necessary. If anyone has a story about a stand-out “conventional” resume, I’d love to hear ways to make myself stand out without the links that I’ve been using to accomplish this.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I actually discourage posting links to resumes here, since that’s not quite what I intend the site for.

      Regarding standing out … you stand out by being well qualified for the job and having a track record of achievement that shows that. And writing an awesome cover letter. I know those sound basic, but that’s really how you stand out in a sea of applicants.

      1. OP here

        Don’t worry, Alison, I won’t spam your site with resume links (though I recognize I’m too link-happy in my cover letter). Thanks for the reply.

      2. Interviewer

        AAM is right. Just spelling everything correctly puts you in an upper echelon of candidates. Having the skills & experience requested, with brief lists of achievements that are relevant to the duties of that role – you will soar above the majority of candidates. And if you write a coherent cover letter, suddenly, you’re in my “phone screen” stack. Good luck.

      3. Marketer

        Fellow marketer here, and I agree: a good cover letter targeted to the specific position and a resume detailing your accomplishments should be enough, if it’s a position that you’re actually a good fit for. Best of luck!

    2. fposte

      The stories by definition favor the story-friendly events. Most successes, however, aren’t story-friendly–“I wrote a really great cover letter” isn’t nearly as blog-worthy as “I sent a pigeon with my resume.” But that’s a skewed account–you’re not hearing about all the failures from the bells-and-whistle approaches or all the successes from the great cover letters.

      Moral: don’t go by the stories.

      1. Eva

        fposte, this seems like as good an occasion as ever to tell you that I really enjoy your presence in AAM’s comment section! You always concisely make an insightful point that hasn’t been made before, reinforcing the high quality of this blog that makes it such a joy to follow. Thanks.

        1. khilde

          I agree with Eva. There are a handful of regular commenters on here that I look forward to hearing from and value the input – fposte is definitely one of them. Keep it up!

    3. NicoleW

      The anecdotal and internet evidence of video resumes and portfolios getting someone the interview are the exception to the rule – and an impossibly small number of candidates. There are start-ups and trendy marketing companies out there that may want this kind of information upfront. I had a phone screen for a “next gen infomercial” agency and they were wondering why I didn’t have all the bells and whistles. But I’m certain this is not the norm.
      I think the best way to handle giving the hiring manager the option of looking at your additional material is to include a link to your professional website in your resume heading. Then mention it in the cover letter that if they’d like to see your portfolio and blog, they can find access to those at this URL. If your site (just one link) has a homepage that is easy to navigate and has links to all of the material you want to show potential employers, you shouldn’t need to include more than one link.

    4. ruby

      Every hiring manager is different but for me, if I got this cover letter, that would be a deal-breaker for me. Here’s why: You’re giving me what YOU want me to have, not what I asked for (assuming the ad asked a resume and a cover letter). Yes, you’ve provided that resume and cover letter in case I “prefer the traditional route” but it’s coming across as condescending (“If you insist on doing things that same old way, here’s my resume and cover letter”). If you already think you know what I want/need better than I do AND you haven’t even gotten an interview…that’s a concern.

      1. Jamie

        “You’re giving me what YOU want me to have, not what I asked for”

        I was trying to put my finger on what was bothering me about the cover letter and this is it. Especially the link to the video “interview.” The presumption that I would be interested in sitting through a prepared and canned “interview” is really off putting. I am sure the OP didn’t intend it to read this way, but altogether the tone seems to infer that the recipient is superfluous to the process…which is so not how hiring works.

  7. Jolene

    I was having the same issue. I was agonizing over my cover letters and never getting called in for interviews after the time I invested applying. A friend who’s a recruiter told me that my cover letters were too long, and I was already keeping them to one page!

    I say, keeping it simple is especially important if you’re applying to any job in advertising/pr/communication/marketing. You want to show you can be succinct because in any of these fields that ability is KEY. If you can’t do it in your cover letter, how can you expect them to think you will be able to do it in your work?

    1. Kimberlee

      See, I automatically take points off if the cover letter doesn’t reach pretty close to a full page. Like, if you can’t come up with a full page about yourself and why you’re interested in the job, that says something bad to me (though obviously a stellar half page is better than a bad full page).

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Don’t take points off! There’s tons of advice out there telling people that their cover letter should be brief. They might not get the extra points that an awesome letter would get, but you shouldn’t penalize them if they’re otherwise a good candidate.

        1. fposte

          I actually don’t like it too short either, because I like to get a sense of a person and their writing skills. But I think what’s happening in my realm is that applicants are starting to confuse the letter of interest (a term they’re actually employing) with the cover letter, so I’m getting “I’m Alison, I’m a manager with a degree in managing, and I’m interested in your chocolate teapot assessment position” in about 50 words as a cover letter. And at least for me, I need a real cover letter.

      2. Long Time Admin

        Kimberlee, what kind of jobs are you recruiting for? It makes sense that you might want a longer cover letter (and a bit chattier letter) for someone in print advertising, but why would you want a long cover letter from an accountant, or an IT person?

        Once you say that you’re interested in Position X, list a couple of accomplishments you have in that field, and invite the HR person to contact you, it seems to me that anything else would just be rambling.

        1. fposte

          You didn’t ask me, but since I like longer stuff myself, here’s my take. Some of it’s just personal–I’m really narrative-based–but I’m also hiring for positions where backgrounds don’t differ that much but where communicative ability and cohesion with a small group really matter. A cover letter gives me the ability to meet somebody before I meet somebody. I don’t want somebody telling me their dreams for pages, but if you’re using it effectively, a full page is definitely not too long.

          I’m sure many of the people with shorter cover letters could do the job just fine, but they’d be bigger unknowns, and that’s not where I’m likely to place my bets.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Exactly what I would have said — when you have lots of qualified candidates with similar backgrounds (which is usually the case), cover letters differentiate them from one another by giving insight into how they communicate, why they’re interested in this particular job, etc.

            I once did some hiring for an organization that didn’t request cover letters (and thus didn’t get many). It was much harder to narrow the candidate pool down than what I’m used to. I hated it!

      3. Lindsay H.

        I’m struggling with this right now. I am applying for a position at a local 2 year college where a friend and former co-worker works. She was on a search committee for a different position at the school and gave me the tip they use a grid when screening resumes. Every requirement listed in the job description has a certain amount of points, and if you don’t list how you meet that requirement, you don’t get points for it. For example, my friend’s position required a driver’s license. If she didn’t explicity state, “I have a valid driver’s license.”, she would’ve lost points.

        I asked her if I needed to use the exact verbage from the requirements, and she highly recommended it to prevent any points from being lost in translation. I am willing to do what I need to do to get my foot in the door, but my cover letter feels disjointed and the narrative isn’t flowing because I’m shoe-horning wording in from their list.

        Oh well. I had to dress up as the Easter Bunny at my first job out of college, so I guess I’ve done worse for a job! :)

        1. Kadry

          For a position like this, how about a cover letter with two columns? Left column lists the requirement, right column lists how you meet it. I know that’s not a traditional format, but this might be the best way to work with their grading system. Of course, you could include a short intro and conclusion in a narrative format.

          1. Lindsay H.

            Ahh! Good thought!! I was comtemplating bolding each bullet point in my letter and explaining underneath, but I really like this idea as well. Thank you for thinking outside the box.

          2. Anon1973

            That’s how I do all my cover letters. I know this is purely ancedotal, but I have received several compliments since I started doing that and one company even called me for an interview simply based on that (and yes, I got the job).

  8. Blue Dog

    I would have JUST ONE link to an online portfolio total from all sources. From there, people could choose what they did and did not want to view. However, I would avoid putting anything overly personal on there (photos of self or family) or any videos or sound at all (it is SO annoying to click on a link and be assaulted by blaring music). Also, the portfolio should be professional (not chatty or blog-like) and not over-done (unless you are going for a coding position). It should showcase your talents and abilities, not your ability to shoehorn video and sound into a webpage.

    I also agree that the opening is a little off-putting. It just strikes me as a little smarmy and a not-so subtle attempt to ingratiate yourself. “Hey, I am the only one who REALLY knows you and what you want.” Yuck.

    Good luck with the search.

  9. JT

    The number of links depends on the job and your strengths. I don’t think it makes much sense to have more than one link in a letter or resume to information that is generically “about you.” But if you’re making a point about something specific, a link to supplementary information might make sense. That is, beyond the link to a portfolio or strong blog in the address block of the letter, the end of a paragraph talking about, say, your writing, could be to a specific section on your site with examples of that. That wouldn’t be asking the reader to do extra work – it would be positioned as a supplement for the reader who wants more than the clear, strong paragraph you’ve already included.

    I recently was applying for an internship where my interaction with the person who would supervise me was only by email. He emailed 3 questions to answer, and for one of them I’d written a post at a large blog on the topic. So I answered the question in my message back, and then wrote something like “You can see more of my ideas on this at XXXX.”

    Part of the problem with the OP’s approach was the online material came across as instead of a resume/letter, when it really has to be an optional supplement.

  10. Anonymous

    I’m personally OK with seeing a few bells and whistles, especially since OP works in marketing. What I really don’t get is OP taking a very long paragraph to elaborate on *why* s/he is throwing in these bells and whistles, rather than explaning her/his fit and passion for the job.

    Knowing that you believe I must be bored by all the resumes in the standard format does nothing in convincing me you are the strongest candidate at all. Use the very valuable real estate in the cover letter to convince the hiring manager you’d be awesome for the job; then they may be tempted to check out all the bells and whistles.

  11. Flynn

    Nobody’s mentioned that hyperlinked text is pretty useless if the person reading it chooses to print out what they’re reading? I’m sure a fair few people still do that!

    1. Student

      I don’t really know if this is common or not, but there are at least some people who are hesitant to click on unsolicited website links. I can assume that you’re a perfectly reasonable, honest person – but maybe the people serving ads to your blog/personal web site/whatever aren’t honest, wonderful people. Maybe they try to download viruses to people. Maybe, since you’re likely a complete stranger at this point, I am concerned that you’re trying to download viruses to me, because sending out thousands of automated resumes and hoping a couple HR people click on your links and install viruses that hoover up, say, SSN info off HR computer systems, sounds like a pretty plausible scam to me.

      I don’t know, and I probably don’t want to have to think about that in a hiring process. This is probably not a concern among marketing folks, but maybe it’s worth thinking about, just a little, before we send all those links to a complete stranger. I’d feel a bit better about getting links to your site after, say, a phone or in-person interview.

    2. simple simon

      Exactly what I was thinking! My old boss used to have me print out all of the CVs and cover letters for her and she would go through them at her leisure – on flights, waiting rooms, etc. Links would have been totally useless.

      This used to also cause all kinds of formatting problems when people put their cover letters in the body of the email as opposed to as an attachment.

      Keep it simple!

      1. Tere

        I have read that some managers prefer the cover letter in the body of the email. And you are giving an example of a manager preferring it as an attachment. So how about if I do both? In the body and as an attachment. Any thoughts on how this will go over? I suppose there is no way to make everyone happy.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Either one is fine, and no sane person is going to disqualify a candidate for how they do it. But don’t do both at once — that makes more work for the employer, having to figure out if they’re both same thing or not.

  12. Cyndy

    I agree with AAM. I like things clean and simple.

    Just a few thoughts I have after reviewing maybe 50 resumes today:

    I rarely read cover letters, and when I do, only after reviewing the resume. The information in a cover letter should be integrated into the resume. And the truth is, most people don’t take the time to craft an individual cover letter for each position. I’ve even received them addressed to or referencing other employers or positions.

    So forget the cover letter and include your accomplishments in the resume. I like to see action items and results, not just a regurgitated job description. Market yourself by telling me first the “win” (outcome, savings, etc.) and then what you accomplished.
    Ex: “Reduced Q1 overtime expenses by $10,000 by designing and implementing a resource scheduling program.”

    And, please, submit what is requested in a clean, simple format. Many of us use applicant tracking systems that upload and parse resumes. We like this because we don’t have to spend so much time on administrative tasks and can focus on finding really great talent like you! Fancy formatting – like text boxes, lots of bullets, tables, etc. – sometimes do not upload correctly leaving it to us to go back and edit/enter additional information from your resume.

    I hope this helps. :)

    1. Liz T

      Ha, I don’t think many regular readers of this site are gonna buy “forget the cover letter.”

    2. sr

      Cyndy, on formatting, I thought this was why many companies let you upload a PDF and then force you to go through 30 minutes of struggling with a terribly built application re-inputting all of the information that is already on the CV? Also, in my experience, even when I upload the simplest CV into these systems it still does not populate the fields correctly, which takes even longer to fix than it would have to just input it in the first place. I can’t wait for this market to turn so employers are forced to update their systems to favor looking for the best applicant and not the one who can fit into their outdated tools the best.

      1. Charles

        “I can’t wait for this market to turn so employers are forced to update their systems to favor looking for the best applicant and not the one who can fit into their outdated tools the best.”


        1. Suzanne

          “I can’t wait for this market to turn so employers are forced to update their systems to favor looking for the best applicant and not the one who can fit into their outdated tools the best.”

          Double Amen and an Hallelujah!

      2. mh_76

        Like – +1 – :)

        sr, have you tried uploading a .txt document? It doesn’t eliminate having to fix everything, especially if your format varies from what used to be the “standard” format (whatever that is), but some things do show up correctly.

        A lot of company black-hole sites have places where you can copy/paste in a text-formatted resume and places where you can upload a document, similar to attaching it to an email.

        Cyndy, cover letter vs. none depends on the company and on the hiring manager. The advice that my support group’s moderator (a professional career coach) gives is to always send a cover letter and let the potential employer ignore it.

        1. sr

          Yes, I’ve definitely tried that. You’re right that it helps, but helps is not perfect, which it needs to be to best show off the candidate to the busy recruiter.

          1. mh_76

            I’m at the point now where I might delete my black-hole profiles altogether because I’m more likely to get into a major company via an agency than via the black-hole. I’m still debating though…

    3. Nikki

      Maybe I its just the nature of my field but I don’t have *any* quantifiable achievements. I don’t do budgets, manage people or things. I’m not in the job market right now, but I always sweat about that.

      I did manage to write a cover letter that could stop traffic for this position and the one I had before this. So I can’t forget the cover letter!

  13. Kimberlee

    I feel like this stream of comments really highlights the fact that, while following a good set of guidelines (like AAM’s) is a best practice, the individual preferences of hiring managers will vary wildly. Unlike Cyndy above, I start with the cover letter. I might not read it all the way at the first go, but I like to have that introduction and give the applicant a chance to “prove” themselves independent of their actual experience. If you have a crap cover letter, there is almost no way to make up that ground in your resume, which is ALWAYS going to be boring and dry (and arguably should be). Now, there are exceptions to everything, but it’s important to me to see why the applicant wants the job, not just whether they can do it.

    And I LOVE links. I mean, I agree that you should not be using space in your cover letter to describe why you’re including them, just include them at the top of your resume, where you have your email address. Then, if you seem like a good candidate, I’ll certainly look at them (note: if you’re not a good candidate on paper, though, I’m probably not clicking through). But I like the option of having more information handed to me if I choose to use it. Personally, on my resume, I have links to my LinkedIn and my Twitter, as well as my blog in a separate section.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Except that whether someone can do the job will trump (or should trump!) why they want it, every time. And the more senior the position is, the more true this is.

      A good cover letter will score you huge points, but a boring, generic cover letter is just a zero: it doesn’t add and it doesn’t subtract (or least that’s how I’d argue it should be). It shouldn’t be a penalty though, if the resume shows a stellar track record of achievement.

      This is my day to disagree with Kimberlee, apparently. Kim, if you’re only hiring for entry-level positions, that might be why we disagree on this.

      1. Kimberlee

        It’s true, I’ve never hired for an upper-level position. And I guess I can agree that a boring letter is a true zero… assuming it is absolutely free of grammatical errors or anything like that.

        I don’t know, I guess I feel that there are enough people out there that can do the job, that I want to make sure its someone that really wants to do the job (and I really do value investment in the position… I tend to believe that a person who is really into their work but starts out needing more training or knowledge will ultimately turn out better than someone who has done it before and can do it well but doesn’t really care. Maybe it’s the implication that you can keep them longer, which I’ve started to really value in the past year or so, seeing the damage high turnover can do (which it failed to do in my last job, because fast food is almost always high-turnover and they take that into account all the time).

        (But, again, the above would probably be a bit different hiring for an uncommon or higher-level skill set).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Definitely depends heavily on what the job is. Internship or entry-level, look for motivation, work ethic, and a track record of achievement in general. Higher level positions, though, and you really need to find both — the work ethic and motivation piece and the knowledge/experience piece. You can hire a really enthusiastic finance director, for instance, but if they don’t have the right experience, you’re going to face all kinds of problems.

        2. Marketer

          I guess it also depends on the kind of job? I hire for marketing, so I’ll definitely look at the cover letter first. If they can’t write a few grammatical, if not persuasive, sentences, I know already they’re not a good fit.

          1. OP here

            This is part of the reason I was including links in the first place, because a lot of jobs have so many different requirements that I wanted to show off experience/accomplishments as they relate to each requirement. I’ve been told to make sure my resume is one page, but there’s quite a few marketing job descriptions that approach a page, with a huge list of required skills/experience! I’m cutting the cover letter and resume down, but I’m having to remove a lot of items that I’ve seen in many job descriptions, but it’s not “an accomplishment”, so I’m taking it off (ie: experience writing a marketing brief, experience interacting with executive management).

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              The one page rule is outdated at this point, if you’re more than a few years out of school. If you ARE recently out of school, stick to it, but otherwise you can go to two pages.

              1. Ask a Manager Post author

                Nah, stick to one. That’s not enough experience to justify two pages, in my opinion. After all, you’re going to be at 2 pages when you’re 35 too (presumably 10 years from now) — you’ve got to be concise. (Sorry to dangle it there to tempt you and then retract it!)

                You’re right to take out stuff that isn’t an accomplishment like “interacting with execs” — that’s not going to get you interviews.

              2. sr

                What’s the solution then for 2-4 years experience when every six months you’ve had a contract/internship position with different employers and each one of them had very different roles and accomplisments? Or if you’ve worked multiple jobs using relevant skills at the same time?

              3. Ask a Manager Post author

                Two years out of college? Seriously try to stick to one page. Be brutal about eliminating superfluous stuff. While you’re not going to barred from applying for jobs or anything, many people will scoff at 24-year-olds with two-page resumes; it just comes across as a little silly. There are 50-year-olds who manage to have one-page resumes, after all.

              4. sr

                While I agree with the premis of your stance, I think it is unfair to assume that there definitely are jobs that someone has held in a short amount of time (and in this tough economy, especially for young people) are supfluous.
                Until very recently I kept it to 1 page, but I just can’t justify it anymore. I’ve personally held 8 relevant positions in 5 years (plus grad school) and I already don’t list all of them. The ones I did decide to keep show off a very specific skill that is commonly requested in the jobs I am applying for, including experiences with a range of business types and clients.
                Do you suggest people in this situation prune more, combine?

              5. Ask a Manager Post author

                I’m not saying some jobs are superfluous, but you don’t need lengthy descriptions of all of them. Again, there are accomplished 50-year-olds who manage to convey their accomplishments in one page; a 24-year-old doesn’t need two pages.

                There are exceptions to every rule, of course … but in my experience, everyone thinks they are that exception, when only a minority are.

              6. Frugal City Girl

                I’m a 25-year-old with a two-page resume/CV but I think things are different in the UK – hiring managers genuinely like to see things like interests, trade memberships, volunteer work, etc. I remember when I first moved here four years ago and I didn’t have any interests or non-work activities on my CV – my interviewers were all really weirded out and confused, and clearly thought I was some kind of robot until I admitted I liked theatre and played an instrument. It’s just different expectations.

  14. OP here

    Wow, I came back this morning to lots of helpful comments, thanks for the insight everyone.

  15. Long Time Admin

    To All Posters:

    Please, please, please – what do you want to see on an Administrative Professional’s cover letter and resume? We don’t have a lot of accomplishments that we can cite – heck, most of the time we don’t even get credit from our bosses for what we do on our jobs as assistants. We can’t point to saving the company X amount of dollars, or increasing productivity by X percent, or increasing sales by X dollars and percent.

    Many Administrative Professionals “grew up” in the office. I’ve taken countless classes, seminars, and workshops, some in-house, some night school, some at the IAAP Educational Forum and Annual Meeting. I’m constantly reading admin newsletters and blogs. I’m not just walking in off the street with no skills, hoping for an easy admin job until I find something better. This is what I do – I’m good at it, and I like it.

    I earned two professional certifications (CSP – Certified Professional Secretary) and CAP (Certified Administrative Professional). Roughly 1/3 of the people who sit for the exams fail, so yes, I’m proud of that. It’s on my resume, but would you know what it means if I don’t explain in my cover letter?

    A lot of us get discouraged during our job search, and most of the advice “out there” is not geared towards us. We’re foundering and would appreciate real advice from those who are reading our resumes and hopefully, our cover letters.

    If you’re still with me, thanks. Sorry about the length of this rant, but boy, it feels good to get it out.

    1. Jamie

      If I were hiring for an admin position I want to see specifics about office productivity software. It should be brief, but descriptive. 99% of the resumes I’ve seen (and full disclosure, I don’t hire for those positions, but I’m asked to help vet the resumes) say things like “Proficient in Excel” or worse just “Excel.” Also – mention the versions so if you have 2010 (or even 2007) familiarity they know they won’t have to train you up from 2003.

      Much better would be “Intermediate skill at Excel (charts, pivot tables, etc.)” Find some way to word it so they know you won’t be calling IT to help you change the width of a column. (It happens. A lot.

      I’d also want to see the size of the offices you’ve supported (or number of managers – whatever). It helps showcase the multitasking and workload you’ve handled.

      Don’t forget to include the higher level projects with which you’ve assisted. If you’ve assisted in the preparation of a business plan, cost benefit analysis, ROI reports…I want to know that. I’ve seen a lot of admins leave that stuff off because they didn’t create the content. But if you’ve assisted in the preparation you’re familiar with the formats and that’s a big plus.

      And this may just be me, speaking as an IT who haaaatesss dealing with the phone system, but if you’ve taken a role in troubleshooting a phone system internally or with the phone company I will put you on the top of the pile and draw a big smiley face on your resume begging HR to please hire you. I don’t expect you to be able to reroute the T-1 – but being a liason between IT and the phone company would be a big help in a lot of smaller companies.

      I wouldn’t know what the certifications you mentioned were, but would look them up if interested in calling for an interview.

      A good admin is invaluable and hard to find. There are, however, a lot of people applying for those jobs as stepping stone – for whom it’s not a career. If you are a professional admin who doesn’t just want to get their foot in the door and leave in a year, hit that in your cover letter. Someone who is a professional admin often has a different approach more finely honed skilled than someone who is just passing through the position – and a company who doesn’t want turnover in this position will welcome that.

          1. Kelly O

            As an admin who is job-searching I would totally love to see your take on this, because I am having the hardest time getting responses to my resume (aside from third-party recruiters, and that is a whole thing that could probably warrant its own email.)

          2. Ask a Manager Post author

            I realize I never did this, after I said I was going to! It was sitting in my to-do list and then it got buried! I may eventually weave it into another post though…

      1. Ellie H.

        Wow – I do administrative work and very little of it has to do with “office productivity software.” Yes, I use some computer programs and systems, and I keep a couple Excel spreadsheets to track information but it’s much more “soft skills” like talking to students who come into the office with questions, writing email notifications and answering email questions, keeping files organized in drawers, communicating with other administrative people about issues, compiling and sending out mailings, knowing where to find stuff in physical files etc. My impression was that ability to do the latter things well was much more important than software skills which are quickly trainable to a smart and competent person.

        1. Jamie

          It depends on the workplace. Admin positions are extremely varied, and I was posting from the POV of what I would be looking for in my industry.

          The soft skills you mentioned are crucial in some roles, but for my company would be inconsequential – it totally depends on the industry and company.

          And software skills are not necessarily easily trainable. One can be smart and competent in many areas and still need hand holding when setting margins in a Word doc. For many people they are, but that’s far from a universal truth and it’s definitely something for which people should screen.

          1. Eva

            “One can be smart and competent in many areas and still need hand holding when setting margins in a Word doc.”

            That reminds me of an interaction I had with one of the IT guys at my former workplace. I was a research assistant in an university department with almost no other women on the academic staff, but where the admin staff was all-female. The IT guy had just finished installing Windows 7 on my computer; I sat down in front of it and was a little surprised to find that he remained at my side. As I logged in, he very pedagogically started to explain the differences from Windows XP, beginning with something really silly involving the Start button which unfortunately I don’t remember in detail. I half-turned to give him a quizzical look and asked if there were any differences I wouldn’t be able to figure out myself by trial and error, or by googling at worst. He stepped away, half-beaming and half-embarrassed, and mumbled something about some of the secretaries needing help navigating the new system.

            And I knew one secretary very well and several superficially, and all struck me as perfectly competent and efficient. I can’t positively swear that there weren’t any less capable ones on staff, but his innocently sexist assumption that I too would need that kind of hand-holding makes me wonder just how much of an overlap there is between general intelligence and “IT intuition”.

            (I hope this story doesn’t come off as self-satisfied. I assume everyone here is my equal or superior when it comes to IT!)

            1. Jamie

              I don’t see it as a sexist assumption. The people who can go from XP to 7, or Office 2003 to 2010 and acclimate themselves probably don’t understand how many people, of both genders, are completely thrown and need the handholding.

              When we went from XP to Win 7 I got over a dozen calls about how they don’t have a start button anymore and didn’t know how to proceed. It sounds silly, but it happens all the time.

              1. Eva

                Thanks for clarifying that the issue with the start button was that it isn’t called the start button anymore!

                It is because he specifically mentioned that ‘some of the secretaries’ (as opposed to ‘some of the others’) had needed help that I thought he was discriminating on the basis of gender. But maybe I’m reading too much into that…

                What’s your take on the difference between the people who need IT hand-holding and the ones who don’t?

              2. Laura L

                From what Eva said, I would think the IT person in her office was making a sexist assumption, particularly because he said “secretaries” and because the secretaries are all female.

                However, I definitely agree that in reality difficulty learning new technology isn’t related to gender, there’s often the assumption that it is.

          2. Ann

            I got backed into a corner in a job once when the office manager/executive assistant was laid off and rather than rehire, most of that position’s duties were given to me, being in a completely unrelated position in a field unrelated to administration, management, HR, or anything of the sort. I struggled more with that job than any other job I’ve ever had. I’m very competent in my areas of strength, I learn quickly, I think creatively, and I intuitively understand numbers. But I cannot deal with the chaos of administrative work – I was constantly multitasking, half of what I did popped up unannounced and had to be dealt with relatively immediately, I only reported to one person but was supporting the work of multiple people who all came to me with needs and requests–and if I slipped up in my work an entire office’s productivity could be damaged until I resolved the error. I’m much more project-oriented: I like to have 3-5 big projects on my plate each week with only occasional small tasks, so I can spend 2-3 uninterrupted hours or more on each project each day. I have the highest appreciation and respect for the super admins who somehow manage to keep track of all the irons they have in the fire and not drop any of them on anyone.

        2. mh_76

          +1 – like – :)

          Computer skills can be taught but the “soft skills” are overlooked far too often and those are the ones that are valuable to all levels of a company, from the Director of First Impressions to the CEO.

      2. AnotherAdmin

        @Jamie – excellent comments and great advice! As LongTermAdmin pointed out, admins are grossly underserved in the advice arena – even organizations and individuals that promote our profession will often repeat the same “quantify your results” advice. The role of an admin can vary wildly from job to job, and frankly, even from day to day, and saying “I cleared 47 jams in the printer so that 16,700 documents could be printed without incident” doesn’t sound all that sexy. I work for a teeny tiny firm and over the course of my tenure here I’ve either repaired myself or worked with the IT/techs to repair every piece of equipment in this building including the alarm and phone systems. I’m the first person everyone looks to resolve their software indiscretions (i.e. I blew up my email!), or show them how to work a program. I’ve taught my coworkers how to use all our equipment, how to use features of their cell phones, and done trouble-shooting on personal laptops (brought to the office) and home computers (by phone). I’ve researched and found information on every topic imaginable, and there hasn’t been a marketing/presentation piece that has left this office in years that I didn’t design, draft, and produce, or at the very least review/edit (if it came from an outside source). Quantifying for an admin is a completely different animal from other jobs; however, after reading through your comments and seeing my contributions from a different perspective, I have a better grasp on how – with the right phrasing – it can be done.

        @LongTermAdmin – for the CPS/CAP designations – you rock!

        1. Jamie

          If you worked here I would so hijack you if you wanted to train in IT.

          After we had a little chat about never fixing personal computers – never give it away :).

          In all seriousness – what you are describing is exactly how I started in IT. I was an operations admin and our IT department was based on the corporate office. They were more than happy to have a on-site set of hands and in return taught me so much.

          I will stop evangelizing for the tech department – but your post really illustrates how varied admin work is. At a large company with layers of bureaucracy those skills might not matter because IT wouldn’t let you touch anything anyway – in a different company they may erect statues in your honor and write folk songs as a tribute to your skill.

          The best way to quantify anything when it comes to a job is to think about metrics. Every position has something which can be measured to assess performance. Not always in numbers – but with some criteria.

          In your case if you took the average number of hours per week you spent assisting IT you could assign a dollar figure to that based on their bill rate. If you assisted for 5 hours per week and their bill rate is 125 per hour, allowing for the fact that it would likely take them less time than you to fix the same problems – lets say 1.3 less time. That’s 208.33 per week saved which comes out to over 10K a year.

          As long as you aren’t inflating the numbers and can back up the skill in your new position, that’s a plenty quantifiable.

        2. Suz

          @AnotherAdmin, With a little polishing, the paragraph you posted here would make a great cover letter.

          1. Long Time Admin

            No kidding! It’s got me thinking about how to phrase all those kinds of tasks I just did because they needed to be done. Never gave them a second thought. I will now!

            Great replies, everyone. Thank you so much.

          2. AnotherAdmin

            @ Suz – thanks!

            @ Jamie – As it happens our office manager recently left so we are even tinier now, and I’ve taken on most of her responsibilities as well. Now I’m three admins (marketing/IT/bookkeeping) in one.

    2. fposte

      I don’t really hire in this area, but can you quantify the volume and impact of the unit you supported? If you were sole AA to three executives in an office handling 10 kajillion dollars of business annually and a range of 300 to 500 clients at a time, that would give me a much more specific picture of your work than just being AA in the office of Oscar Bunbury, international businessman.

      1. Lexy

        +1 I hope Bunbury is an Oscar Wilde reference.

        “Oh! I killed Bunbury this afternoon. I mean poor Bunbury died this afternoon.”

    1. Anonymous

      Agree. Sadly, the cover letter posted above would completely put me off – I doubt I’d read the CV, and I certainly wouldn’t click on any links. I’ve seen fantastic applications for creative roles where people presumably thought we’d be bored of the plain white paper CV – but rather than wasting words telling us how bored we were, they simply put in a piece of work / more creative CV etc. And the phrasing in the cover letter would make me wince – it’s so cheesy.

  16. Emily

    Would you advise leaving job duties off your resume if you can’t point to achievements? Say my job involves selling chocolate teapots: specifically, I manage the chocolateteapots.com online store, bring sample chocolate teacups to chocolate trade shows, and contract with wholesalers to resell them for us. In my resume, I can say that I increased online sales from 50 teapots per week to 200 teapots per week, and doubled the number of wholesale vendors as well as tripled the quantity sold by wholesale. Yet even though taking the teacups to trade shows is an important part of my job, it’s something I’ve simply done. Even if I do it really well–making great connections at the events, making the booth look professional, increasing the number of shows I attend, etc.–it’s hard to turn this into a measurable achievement as it’s a process-oriented, not a goal-oriented, item in my job description. The achievement related to this task is in fact the one about quadrupling wholesale volume.

    In this scenario, would it be appropriate for me to off-handedly mention attending trade shows in my cover letter, but not mention trade shows under this position in my resume so that I can save the bullet points for my objective achievements?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Not every single line on a resume has to be an achievement — it’s a “the more you can do of it, the better” situation, but there will be stuff that will strengthen your candidacy that’s worth leaving on even though you can’t frame it as an achievement, per se. The question to ask yourself is whether it strengthens you as a candidate.

      1. Other Kat

        Speaking of this, you know Alison when you had your last ‘I’ll review your resume’ promo mine was one of the ones you reviewed. You apologetically got back to me that there was not much you would change, but you gave me a link to an updated format AND suggested adding achievements. Since my resume was more of an admin/paralegal resume I felt that task was daunting but I sat down one day and revamped it. I hadn’t sent it out much because I’m at a long term temp job, but last month I sent it to two positions (that actually were for positions a bit different than what I’m used to, one with a big bank). Well 1) both jobs called me for an interview so I was 2 for 2; and 2) last week, one of them offered me the position. I know a LOT of this result had to do with my resume. The interviewer was impressed with my resume and I was able to prove with my achievements how my background could convert over to this totally different (hopefully) career position.

        So yay, and THANK YOU!

  17. mh_76

    [cursing my ancient computer as I see that it didn’t post one of my comments…grrr…or wondering if I posted it on the “wrong” blog post…oops…]

    OP, what about putting your LinkedIn link in your resume & cover-letter header? You can even customize what the last part of the link is (e.g. http://www.linkedin.com/in/ lisasimpsonsaxygirl ). On LI, you can add links to 3 websites (and post others to your profile, like on Facebook or G+) and on one of those sites, include links to even more. I saw somewhere a site called http://about.me on which you can post more links. Or maybe set up your own domain name & put that link on LI and in your headers.

    [OK, computer, please post this properly]

  18. V

    Assuming you are still monitoring this thread, I have a question about addressing cover letters.
    Is it weird to write “Dear IBM” or whatever other company you are applying to?
    Ive done this a few times and a friend told me it was stupid.
    On occasions when I could find out through linked in and other sites who the hiring manager was, i have used their name but I think “Dear IBM,” “Dear Jones Company” etc just sounds better than many other more common options.

    what do you think?

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