Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cover Letters: Can they actually hurt your chances?

I never thought that my first posting on this site would be about writing cover letters, those messages that are sent together with CVs/resumes to introduce and position your application. Many others have written about this subject and I thought that it was difficult to make a major mistake. However, I recently advertised some jobs on behalf of Israeli employers and was astonished by what some candidates decided to write to me to presumably promote themselves for the advertised positions.

First I think it is appropriate to describe what the objective of a cover letter is. The goal is to supplement (not duplicate) the information contained in your CV, increasing the employer’s interest so that they will actually invest time in learning more about you by reading your CV, and ultimately invite you for an interview. In Israel, the cover letter is usually short and to the point. It should start by listing the position you are applying for (with position code if known), a few short sentences describing why you are an exceptional candidate for the position, typically some reference to the attached CV, links to portfolio and/or example of work if relevant, and your contact details. For those interested in learning more about cover letters, including getting some good examples, there are a large number sites on the Internet designed for this purpose.

Since you can’t be sure of the comfort level in English of the person/people reviewing your application, and also since there is no reason to come across as an English speaker only if you are at least conversational in Hebrew, sending the cover letter in Hebrew, with or without an English version, can also be useful.

Now on to some examples of what NOT to do in your cover letter, based upon recently submissions to me:
  • The most common mistake is to send a CV without any cover letter message at all. I received so many applications, so why even spend time reading CVs that arrived without an introduction, when I had plenty of other candidates that had used their cover letter wisely and highlighted their suitability. And since I was dealing with more than one open position, without a cover letter I had no idea which job people were even applying for.

  • A number of variations on the theme that the candidate is interested in the position, and then asking if they should send their CV. Do you know how difficult it is to attract the interest of an employer generally with an email application, when there may be tens of other similar applications? And then to suppose that the employer is going to politely respond to your question and ask you to send your CV, as they are desperately waiting for your application. If you are interested in the job and believe yourself to be a good candidate, simply apply initially with your best targeted cover letter and CV.

  • Introducing potentially sensitive issues in your cover letter. Here are some such topics that were raised in applications to me:
    *** I am 68 years old, but have plenty of strength and motivation - I hope that when I reach 68 years of age (Bizrat HaShem), I will also have plenty of energy. However, for many employers, a candidate of this age (many believe this is true for people 50+ or even 40+) will be automatically disqualified from further consideration based upon age alone. So if you are in an age category that is problematic for attracting employers, this is something that should be hidden rather than highlighted when initially applying, both in the cover letter and the CV. Remember, the objective of the cover letter/CV is to get invited to an interview, and the best time to deal with such sensitive issues is in person in an interview rather than on a piece of paper or electronic file in an application.
    *** I am a new immigrant, and arrived in Israel in few weeks ago OR my Hebrew is basic, and I am studying in ulpan - It is wonderful that you have made aliyah and something that many people are correctly proud and strengthened by. Keep in mind though, that what you consider to be a positive may be interpreted by an employer to be something less than that. An Israeli employer may wonder if a new immigrant will fit in their Israeli work place (both in terms of culture and language), and whether they are even going to stay in the country for the long haul. In most cases, the more you can appear as a veteran Israeli, the better off you will be.
    *** I have been out of the work force for a number of years, studying in yeshiva/being a housewife/traveling around the world… - This fact can not possibly help your job candidacy, why emphasize it?
    *** I don’t have experience/knowledge in this particular profession/sector, but I am a fast learner - Your job is to highlight what makes you attractive for a job, certainly not to introduce negative points.
    *** Sending a cover letter with spelling/grammatical mistakes or a sloppy format - Find others with good editing skills to review your documents before clicking on the send button.

Best of success in your job search, and don't ignore the small details.


  1. Thank you, Ron, for a very interesting article. Most of your points make good sense and in normal times I would probably avoid all these mistakes. However, I found myself recently highlighting a disadvantage because I think I have good answers that can not come across in a CV. No, I am not 68 years old...I am a native Hebrew speaker with excellent English. I studied and worked abroad (and published written reports in English) and believe that my English is better than that of many native speakers, however I encounter difficulties when applying to jobs that require mother tongue English. I therefore started explaining this in cover letters, as I feel that without such an explanation, surely I will not be invited for an interview. This means that I end up highlighting my non-native English....What do you think?

  2. שלום רון,
    ברשותך אני כותב בעברית. לי זה יותר נוח
    ראשית כל תודה על המאמר המועיל והנכון
    גם לי יש שאלות, אודה לך אם תוכל לענות עליהן:
    1) אני שולח די הרבה קורות חיים לתפקידים קצת שונים. כדי לכתוב משהו קצר, קולע, ענייני ואחיד אני עושה כך - כותב שם המשרה ומספר משרה (אם יש) בכותרת המייל
    ובגוף המייל אני שם ברוב המקרים טקסט די קבוע
    יש לי את הידע והניסיון הנדרשים בשביל תפקיד זה ואני זמין מיידית להתחיל לעבוד,

    מה אתה אומר?

    2)לא מזמן סיימתי בהצטיינות תכנית איכותית, ארוכה ורצינית מאד בנושא
    VLSI/ASIC Verification
    אין לי ניסיון תעשייתי בתחום זה, אבל התכנית שארכה קרוב לשנה וחצי והייתה ממש כבדה, עם המון לימודים, תרגולים ופרויקטים ואני היחיד שסיימתי אותה בהצטיינות. זה לא "סתם עוד קורס". מה גם שיש לי ניסיון מעשי בתחומים הקרובים לתחום זה.
    מה היית כותב ב
    cover letter
    במקרה שלי?
    בלי לציין שאין לי ניסיון מעשי אני לא יכול כי אני חייב להסביר בקצרה שהתכנית הייתה ממש רצינית וכו' ולמדנו את זה ואת זה (דברים מאד חשובים ושימושיים), פרויקט גמר היה כזה וכזה.
    בלי שאני מזכיר את הקורס מיד כשיפתחו את הקובץ ויראו שזה רק רקע מהלימודים בכלל לא יפנו אליי.
    תודה רבה!