Ideally, I can decide to speak to you based on a few sentences in the body of an email/application, and then primarily read the résumé to prepare for our initial dialogue and use it as a framework during the call. Give me a few sentences to make me want to have that talk.
I never ask for or expect a full cover letter with addresses and dates and all the formatting. Personally, I don't want to read that either, and I'd rather not task applicants with the hassle. All we're trying to do is start a conversation, and it shouldn't take much to get it started. Reading only a few sentences before making a decision will clearly make my job easier, but it will make the job seeker's life a bit better as well. There is much less pressure to have the perfect résumé if you can get past the first stage without that document being carefully judged. Invest five minutes in the application, and you can spend less time customizing résumés.
Roughly 50% of the applications I receive are résumé only. In 2013, almost 90% of my client hires included additional content. The data set is not large, but over my 15 years I'd expect that the figures would be rather consistent. Whether applying for an advertised job via email, an online application, or even if you are just blindly sending a résumé in the off chance a company might consider you for hire, the key concepts to address in the content that accompanies the résumé are:
Tell Me What Prompted You to Apply for the Job
Where did you see the ad? If you were on the major job boards, you saw hundreds. What was it about this ad that caught your eye and made you act? One sentence is plenty. If you saw the ad on the company's website, kudos–you weren't out trolling the boards; you were actually looking into us. What did you like about us?
Show Me Why You Believe You Are Qualified
It isn't necessary to write a long and detailed summary of your experience here, and you shouldn't. One or two sentences that distill the most relevant experience will get us to the next step. You can quantify years of experience in the industry and with a couple technologies listed in the ad, reference a noteworthy accomplishment, or briefly describe how a current or past role prepared you. A link to past work might help in certain cases.
If you've covered what prompted your application and your qualifications nicely, a simple "I'm very interested in learning more about this position…" can suffice. If you feel you may need just a bit more to put you over the top, demonstrating that you did a minute of research on the company can help. Is there a product we offer that you'd like to know more about? Did the way we described our culture have particular appeal to you?
Mention the Company's Name, Twice
Doing this lets me know you cared enough not to send a pure form letter. Applications that use generic phrases like "your company" (or the worst, "your esteemed organization") name scream "I'm just looking for any job" and not "I'd like to be an employee of COMPANY". The first mention can be in the opening sentence when you list the job itself ("…apply for Senior Python Developer at COMPANY"), and specify again in your closing.
Don't Do Anything Stupid or Desperate
Referencing the wrong company name due to cut/paste miscues is a common one, and although we are willing to forgive a small error it does give the appearance that the candidate has applied to several positions simultaneously (which is fine, but decreases our odds of hiring). Creating a tone that you are desperate to work is not helpful, regardless of how true it is. Make the recipient want to hire you based on your skills and not on sympathy. Don't ask me to hire you, just explain why I should want to.
And a few tips for specific situations…
If You Are Asked for a Salary Requirement…
If you are uneasy about providing salary requirements, at least acknowledge the request tactfully (as opposed to completely ignoring it). Try something like "It's difficult to provide an accurate salary requirement before knowing any other elements of employee compensation packages, as well as the job responsibilities and company's expectations for this role."
If You Are Applying for a Job in a Different City…
Recruiters receive many résumés from out-of-town applicants. When we see a non-local address without any explanation, it is often safe to assume that you are applying for many jobs all across the country. There is nothing wrong with that, but the odds that we will hire you become much lower if you are looking everywhere (more choices lower the chance you'll choose us). Combine this with the complexity of relocation–cost of living differences, moving costs and potential reimbursement, changing schools for young children, etc.– and the recruiter has to weigh the decision to spend time with you or someone local. Therefore, unless your résumé is spectacular, an non-local applicants may not be given the same level of consideration.
When targeting a move to a specific city, mention this in the body of your application. Companies will pay close attention to candidates that have concrete plans to move to their city, and agency recruiters are much more likely to work with you if you are only seeking jobs in one or two locations. If you can provide a future local address on a résumé, that may help.
If You Are Somewhat Underqualified for the Job…
There will be times when a job looks very appealing but your experience clearly falls a bit short. In this situation, the opportunity to write a few sentences in support of your résumé is your best shot at consideration. Recruiters will often give at least one chance to underdog candidates who attempt to make up for a lack of years with some enthusiasm or an interesting story. It is much harder to say no to someone who demonstrates that they are eager to work for you.
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