Pat Ferguson, director of general employment for Holiday Corp., the corporate headquaters for Holiday Inns in Memphis, annually reads thousands of cover letters and resumes - some good, many bad.
But it's the ones addressed to "Mr. Pat Ferguson," or those beginning with "Dear Sir" that make her cringe.Ferguson realizes that her first name is one that's common among men. But such mistakes, no matter how innocent, are hard to overlook, especially when they're made by someone who wants a job.
Knowing your audience is one of the attributes of a good cover letter, say personnel directors. And, they admit, when all things are equal between applicants, a well-crafted cover letter can provide the edge.
"Most people don't realize just how important a cover letter can be. Sometimes a really good one can determine who gets interviewed for a job and who doesn't," said Robert Nowaczyk, vice president of human resources for the Vanguard Group Inc., a mutual investment firm in Valley Forge, Pa.
"We (the Vanguard Group) receive about 500 cover letters per week, or more than 26,000 letters a year, and at least 60 to 75 percent of them could be vastly improved," added Nowaczyk, who is also the national chairman of the Employment and Placement Committee of the American Society of Personnel Administrators.
Explains Ferguson, "It's nice to receive one that's been personally addressed to me. It shows me that the person has taken the initiative to find out who I am."
She prefers a letter to state an individual's salary requirements, especially when a company asks for them. She recommends including several phone numbers and the reasons why a person is without employment or seeking to change careers.
"The approach I like best is short and simple, usually one page long and no more than three short paragraphs or less," said Cynthia Shulz, corporate recruiter for International Paper.
When writing to a company about a job, it's important to indicate you are aware of what the company does, she said.
"It's also important to be direct and to demonstrate that you're able to communicate well and express your thoughts clearly," Shulz said. "It's also important not to give out too much information that might allow a personnel director to form an opinion of you - especially a negative one."
Most applicants are tempted to write cover letters that reflect their personality, but a formal tone always works best, says Lillian Chaney, professor of management at Memphis State University's Fogelman College of Business and Economics.
"If you want to show that you have a sense of humor, save it for the interview and only use it subtly because you don't want to come across as a clown," said Chaney.
It's also important - especially when changing careers - to emphasize any skills that you may have acquired on one job that can be transferred to another, she said.
Other pet peeves among personnel directors are sloppy letters, cutesy letters, letters with bad grammar and letters with misspelled words, said Mark Cofill, sales representative for Snelling and Snelling Personnel. "I like to think of cover letters as mini-advertisements that can be particularly helpful to a job-seeker who can't personally go to a company to fill out an application," he said.
Cofill said that he finds nothing wrong with adding a little "sizzle information," personal achievements that you feel proud of. But it's important not to use a hard-sell approach because it can come across as less than sincere, he added.
Cofill read a letter from a woman looking for employment in retail sales. The letter, addressed to "dear employment manager," said the applicant was "personable, attractive, ambitious, assertive and very confident." It also stated that she had a clientele base that had followed her from job to job.
"It's lousy," Cofill said. "First of all, by using the words `attractive' and `very confident,' some potential employers might interpret that as being a bit too cocky or arrogant. Also, the letter didn't sound very positive, especially that part about the clientele base that followed the individual from job to job."
When all else fails, job applicants have been known to use their wiles instead of words.
"Once this man sent me his shoe with a note saying that he had been trying to get his foot in the door with the company for years," said Kay Coop, managing director of personnel services for Federal Express in Memphis. "He thought that sending us his shoe would get him an interview."