Just as resume writing and the entire job search process have evolved remarkably over the past few years, so has the process of writing letters to potential employers. The "old-school" cover letter has largely gone by the wayside and been replaced with e-notes—letters that are less formal, more direct and sent via e-mail or company website instead of an envelope.
Below are five of today's trends in job-search communications. After you've read these trends, take the time to understand how you can incorporate the recommended strategies and actions to transform your HR job search letters from the past into modern communications.
1. Cover Letters Have Transformed into E-Notes
When was the last time you printed and mailed a letter and resume in response to a job opportunity? Maybe never or at least not in a very long time.
You're most likely uploading your letters to companies' websites or sending them via e-mail. And that means your letters should be formatted as e-notes—e-mail messages—and not traditional cover letters.
Why the change? Most hiring managers, recruiters and other decision-makers will not take the time to read a full page of densely written text. In our world of tweets and quick online communications, you must learn to write your job search letters in a concise style.
Remember: Prospective employers don't yet care about you. That may sound harsh, but it's true. At the initial stage of culling through applications, they are searching for reasons to quickly put your resume in the "yes," "no" or "maybe" pile.
Your challenge is to instantly capture your readers' attention. Don't turn them off with a letter that's hard to read and overwhelms them with unimportant details, and don't introduce yourself with an e-mail stating that your resume and cover letter are attached.
Structure your e-notes as follows to quickly engage your readers:
- Use your subject line wisely. State the position title for which you are applying (e.g., HR Director with ABC Company) or share something about your expertise along with the position title (e.g., SHRM-SCP – 7 years' experience – HR Director with ABC Company). That way you don't have to start your e-note with a generic sentence announcing you're applying for the job.
- Capture the reader's attention with information that is important and distinguishes you as a top HR candidate. Keep in mind that most of the lower part of your message may be hidden if the recruiter is reading it on a phone, so give him or her a reason to scroll down to learn more about you and your qualifications, achievements, credentials and more.
- Get to the point by writing succinct, yet engaging, content. Use short paragraphs and/or bullet points to convey the breadth and depth of your HR experience, achievements and project highlights. You want your e-notes to be easy to read. Remember, you only have seconds to capture someone's attention. You can best accomplish that with two to three short paragraphs or three to five short bullet points, giving just enough information to communicate that you are a qualified candidate and belong in the "yes" pile.
- End your e-note with an e-mail signature block providing relevant contact information (name and credentials, phone number, e-mail address, link to LinkedIn profile) and any links to other sources of online information about you (e.g., publications, public speaking engagements, media coverage, affiliations).
Here's an example of a signature block for a mid-level HR professional:
Grace Anderson, SHRM-SCP
- Don't include letterhead at the top of the message. It's not necessary and looks inappropriate.
2. Cover Letters Add Value to Online Applications
When an application indicates that a cover letter is optional, should you take the time and trouble to include one?
In a word … yes!
When employers screen resumes to choose a slate of candidates to interview, it stands to reason that a lot of the content of those resumes will be similar. For example, if you're a training manager, you're probably responsible for the design, development and delivery of training programs, just like most training managers. The topics and audiences you serve may be different from other managers', but many of the job functions are the same … and they're probably the same/similar for the jobs you're pursuing.
Give yourself an extra edge in your e-note that matches the job qualifications. When you include a letter with your resume, you can:
- Emphasize the aspects of your background and experience that fit particularly well with the advertised position.
- Create a connection with that specific job and company.
- Share additional information that sets you apart from other, equally qualified applicants.
Of course, not every hiring authority will read your cover letter and that's OK. Write for those who will.
3. Good Writing and Correct Spelling and Grammar Trump Text-ese
E-notes are less formal than the traditional cover letter. They are to-the-point and dispense with flowery courtesies that used to be standard. But that doesn't mean e-notes can be sloppily written, use texting shortcuts, or contain language or spelling errors.
Employers judge candidates on the quality of the documents they submit in a job application. After all, these are indicative of the quality of work you will do for that employer if you are hired.
Just as you take pains with your interview appearance, take the time to carefully write and even more carefully proofread and review your e-notes and resumes so that you make your best first impression.
4. Design Elements Are OK … Sometimes
Although most people receive e-mail messages in HTML format, which allows for the use of some basic design elements, there are some people who continue to get their messages in plain text format. To be certain that everyone receiving your e-note can easily read the content, and to be as positive as possible that there aren't any "weird" formatting or display issues, stick with a commonly used font (such as Times or Helvetica) and be careful when integrating any design elements.
Include a logo or graphic after your signature block if you want, but be very careful that it's not touching any of the text. The integrity of your formatting and overall design is important because, as stated in Trend 3, first impressions count. Don't let some errant design element negatively impact the quality content that you've written.
Another very important reason for keeping the design clean is the potential that someone will scan your e-note or uploaded letter into an applicant tracking system (ATS) to search for keywords and retain your information. As such, you want to be certain that the ATS can read these documents easily and without any potential corruption from over-the-top design elements and presentations.
5. All Communications with Potential Employers Take Place in E-Notes
The strategies and recommendations outlined previously in this article are for all of your job search letters, even the all-important thank-you letter once you've interviewed with a company or recruiter–whether that interview was done in person or via phone or Skype.
Structure a thank-you letter just as you would an e-note responding to a job posting, or one you would write for networking or contacting a recruiter. Keep the content focused on elements of the interview that were most important (e.g., HR skills, qualifications, credentials, achievements, project highlights), share additional achievements that best demonstrate your ability to successfully perform in that new HR position, address any concerns about your candidacy that may have been raised during the interview, and continue to engage your reader.
Remember to stick with the formatting recommendations and design elements outlined above so that your thank-you letters transmit perfectly via e-mail and there's minimal chance for error in how these letters looks.
You can apply many of these e-note recommendations to your resume, bio, LinkedIn profile and other job-search documents. Your ability to engage your readers—with your skills, writing ability and presentation—will distinguish you from the crowd of other candidates and give you a uniquely competitive edge to win. Go forth with confidence and a commitment to excellence in your search.