Posted July 01, 2009
I've been actively involved in the hiring process at work for over two years now. Rmcreens, phone interviews, coding phone interviews, lunch interviews, and technical in-person interviews, I get to do it all. Sometimes it's a minor annoyance that keeps me from coding, other times it's a nice break in the middle of a busy day.
But recently I've become more and more frustrated with one section of the process, the rmcreens. The problem has to do with cover letters, or the lack thereof.
In our system, a rmcreen has seven different criteria, five of which must be met for the applicant to move on to the next stage. (Four is sometimes accepted, but only for obviously exceptional candidates who might not fit within the strict interpretation of the system.) Generally, a rman only satisfy three of those seven criteria. Sometimes we can stretch it and infer one or two more, but it's rare. So when an applicant doesn't send along a cover letter, I've got to work harder just to give them a fighting chance; it doesn't endear them to me.
On the other hand, a good cover letter can show me that the applicant meets four of the five required criteria. Not only do they increase their odds in raw numbers, they also make my job easier, which can only help them.
But not just any cover letter will do. It doesn't seem like it would be that obvious, but I can usually identify a "Dear [Company Name]," cover letter within a few seconds of opening it. It's better than no cover letter at all, but it almost automatically loses on two of the four criteria, meaning that the applicant has to nail the five remaining. They make my job harder, and the raw odds of them getting in are lowered.
So what makes a good cover letter? There are a lot of resources out there, but for me it comes down to two simple things: tell me why you want to work at my company and tell me why you want to do the job you are applying for. Bonus points for showing me those two things. That's the generic advice. Specifically for programmers, show me your previous work, your outside projects, the blog you wrote from scratch, etc.
Take the time. You can still share a lot of the cover letter between companies. But make sure the company knows you care by writing a paragraph about what draws you to the company. Be specific, words like "interesting" and "exciting" don't add anything.
And try to make my job easier.