Controversial Cover Letter Advice From An HR Pro

We’d be inclined to dismiss HR Dave’s advice about de-personalizing your cover letter, except that “HR Dave” is David Gaspin, formerly head of talent acquisition for Conde Nast. So he would know what he’s talking about.

In a recent blog post (“Opinions are like cover letters–everybody has one and most of them are wrong”) he upsets the traditional advice about cover letters, saying that they don’t…actually…matter.

“9 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t read them, and 10 out of 10 recruiters that I know don’t pass them along to hiring managers….” However, a bad cover letter can sink you. “I have NEVER read a resume of someone who was unqualified for the job and thought ‘well, if they have a great cover letter I’ll reconsider.’ Never happened; never will. However, I have on several occasions read a resume of a qualified candidate, then moved on to the cover letter out of curiosity, and have promptly removed that candidate from consideration.”

So since a great cover letter, in Gaspin’s mind, won’t help, but a bad one will hurt, the solution is to strip the cover letter down to its basics.

1. Address it to the correct company. Please.
2. Keep it brief. No more than a couple of well thought out paragraphs.
3. Outline two things: why you want the job and why you’re right for the job.
4. Don’t repeat your resume. They’ve already read that.
5. Try to keep it conversational – this is your chance to show your personality.
6. Don’t show too much personality. Failed attempts at humor are deadly in cover letters.
7. If your personality sucks, ignore #6 and stick to a very business-like tone.
8. Read it out loud. If it doesn’t sound good out loud, it doesn’t look good in writing.
9. Proofread it. Check for spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. Spellcheck is your worst enemy. Just because there are no red squiggly lines doesn’t mean it’s right.
10. Proofread it. Again. You missed something the first time. Trust me.

If you’ve followed these steps, you probably are now sitting in front of a document that is inoffensive, vanilla, and could have come from 1000 different candidates. If that’s what you have, congratulations! You have a perfect cover letter.

Remember, this is coming from the former director of talent acquisition at Conde Nast, where (if anywhere) cover letter writers would have the chops to pull off personality and humor in a cover letter. We’re rethinking all our application strategies now, from the ground up.