Is This Good Resume Cover Letter Advice or a Sales Gimmick?

There's a fine line between smart marketing and sales gimmicks when it comes to writing cover letters. I've heard some talk about making your resume cover letter punchy with a few "new" techniques. So, of course, I have to put my two cents into the conversation.

Resume Cover Letter Advice: Agree or Disagree?

Not all of these points are new, but they're worth discussing because job seekers (you may be one of them) wonder if they should follow this cover letter advice. Here's what I think...

1. Write your letter to a specific person in the company.

Absolutely, if it's at all possible to get the right person's name. You might even call the company and ask the receptionist for the name of the manager of the department where you want to work. I think that's good detective work.

2. Reference someone at the start of the letter.

Well, maybe. It all depends on how you know that person, and how well-regarded your referrer is in the eyes of the person you're writing to. For example, if you start your cover letter by referencing the receptionist it could be a mistake if you don't really know her. She could be a temp or about to be fired, in which case you could be throwing your money on a losing race horse.

Even if you get the manager's name from someone at a higher level, it's good to know more about the relationship between the referrer and the manager. Let's say you meet someone from ABC Company who tells you the name of the manager in the department where you'd like to work. Ask a few questions about how these two people know each other, what projects they've had... dig a little to see if there's a hint of good will or animosity. While it could be your winning ticket to be referred by a potential boss's friend, it won't help a bit to be recommended by his enemy.

3. Make your cover letter a sales letter.

Yes and no. You resume cover letter is a sales letter in the sense that it pitches you to the recruiter or hiring manager. It should also paint a picture of you at the job interview by showing that you know what the company does, what value you offer, and what you'd like to discuss in person. While saying this, your cover letter should reveal your professional personality so the reader gets a sense of you — the person he'll be sitting with in the interview.

But an over-the-top sales letter is not appropriate for most job objectives. It may work very well for sales, marketing, and promotion jobs where a "salesy" approach is expected and valued. But that same sales letter approach will likely fall like a rock off a cliff for an IT professional, accountant, school teacher, and frankly most occupations not involved with sales. (Check out my sample cover letters to see what I think works for most types of work.)

4. Use blue ink for the signature.

This may be true for hardcopy cover letters; I haven't done any research on that. But these days, most job seekers send their resume cover letters via email — not hardcopy snail mail. I strongly advise that you not use blue type in your cover email or attached cover letter.

5. Write a PS message that reels the reader in. Your PS will be read first after seeing who the resume cover letter is from.

I like this advice — for hardcopy cover letters. I honestly think people do read a PS at the end of a letter before reading its content. I know I do when I'm scanning junk mail. But again, how does this apply to email? If the PS is below the fold (meaning you have to scroll the message to see it), then there's no advantage to having it way down at the bottom of your letter. In fact, it could easily not get read at all.

As for putting something gimmicky in the PS (such as mentioning that you're sending a mysterious gift in a few days), I don't recommend it unless you're going for a position in sales, marketing, or promotions.

Okay, I've given my opinions. What do you think? Can you add to this list of ways to improve a resume cover letter?

8 thoughts on “Is This Good Resume Cover Letter Advice or a Sales Gimmick?

  1. Hi Susan,

    I was sick and took time to recover. I’m not inclined to tell a potential employer this, so I plan on saying there was a family situation at the time. If they ever found out this was a fib later, would there be repercussions?

    • John,
      I don’t think you’ll have trouble with that explanation because strictly speaking, your illness and recovery WAS a family situation.

      However, before you resort to that, is there anything else you could put down on your resume for that time? While you were recovering, was there any unpaid activity that you could list? Volunteer work (for example, phone call fundraising or administrative tasks for a nonprofit) or some personal pursuit (for example, work on your website or financial consulting for friends or family). You get my drift. Anything that steers the conversation away from illness or leaves the employer wondering about that mysterious topic you don’t want to discuss.

      Good luck with it!

      • Susan,

        Thanks for your response. There were a few personal projects I worked on at the time, but the gap is a one year gap in between two colleges (I transferred). Even if I listed nothing there, would a family situation still be sufficient for that one year? And yes, you’re right, my family was involved so if ever questioned, it’s not really untrue is it?

        Thanks again.

        • Hi John,
          It’s possible that you’d be fine listing just your college experience. I don’t have the real dates, so I’ll make something up for the sake of an example. Notice, I’m using only years (no months) when listing experience.

          Assuming you attended school two years, 2009-2011 at ABC College, had a year off, then went to DEF College starting 2012 for 6 months, here’s how you might list it.

          2009-2012, Student, DEF College (2012), ABC College (2009-2011)

          See how the one year off doesn’t need to be explained in this case? Would that work for you?

          If the gap comes up in an interview, you can keep your response brief by simply saying you transferred to a different college and took some time off between the two.

    • You would not get fired if you listed it the way I suggested. And, if you decide to list “Family situation” I don’t believe you could get fired for that. I’m not an employment lawyer, but to the best of my knowledge, you could not get fired for saying that.

      • Susan thanks for all of your help. So, whichever way I list it, “family situation” always works? Thanks a lot again, your website is very helpful.

        • John,
          Family situation is okay but not great. It begs the question: “What’s wrong with John’s family situation that it prevented him from working? And will that family situation come up again and be my (the employer’s) problem if I hire him?” So I suggest you not use that term unless you absolutely have to.
          Good luck!

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