Take aim with your cover letter

Focused, job-specific applications are often better than a blanket approach

Focused, job-specific applications are often better than a blanket approach When I was a kid, one of my school friends applied to be a Solid Gold dancer. Remember them? Dionne Warwick hosted the Solid Gold show and gaggles of Solid Gold dancers with big hair writhed about to the top 40 wearing ghastly, glittering clothing and legwarmers. This school friend practiced all the moves and even had a pair of the glittery shorts that the female dancers wore (I don’t think the male dancers wore them but I could be wrong — this was the 1980s after all). Anyway, so certain was she of her skills that she wrote to Solid Gold offering her services. She never heard back. She ended up following a career into accountancy. The problem was obvious of course. She was way too young, too far away and they probably didn’t have any openings anyway. She learned a valuable lesson in writing speculative letters — make sure your skills match the requirements of the potential employer or recruitment agency. The world of IT might not be as glamorous as the world the Solid Gold dancers inhabited but the same rules apply. Recruitment firm Enterprise IT managing director Barry O’Brien says if you decide to send out some speculative letters in your hunt for a job, you shouldn’t take a blanket approach. "You have to target and you have to use buzzwords. You have to think about the organisation that you’re writing to. "We’re all busy people so you’ve got to encapsulate in the first paragraph exactly what skills you have that could be relevant to the organisation." He says employers and agencies aren’t going to read a long, wordy letter. He says it’s like a good book — it has to have a good hook to draw readers in. One way to do this is to do your homework beforehand so you can tailor the letter to suit the person you’re writing to, matching your skills to their requirements. "Otherwise you’re wasting your time and you’re wasting other people’s time." Many people like to write spec letters because of that old adage about the best jobs not being advertised. O’Brien doesn’t believe that’s true. "If we get a decent job we advertise it." He says that occasionally a good job will be filled by someone on their database, although the people on that database mostly got there by responding to job advertisements. However, if someone writes in who is a C++ programmer or a business analyst, O’Brien will get them in as fast as he can. That’s because they’ve got hot skills. "But if I got a letter from a Cobol programmer I would probably write back to them and say we don’t have any vacancies." He says employers will react in the same way to such letters — it will depend on the skills you’ve got and whether any vacancies have opened up. But he still advises that’s worth giving it a go. Ten years ago he would have advised people to telephone as many people as possible and then follow that up with a letter. "Today, it’s hard to get to speak to people." If you do opt to telephone and get someone’s voicemail, O’Brien advises against leaving a message, because it means you’re creating extra work for them in having to get back to you. "They’re either not going to reply, or out of guilt they’ll reply and it’s going to be a drudge." So next time you’re hunting for jobs keep those points in mind. Perhaps you’ve got a success story of pounding the pavements that worked — if so, I’d like to hear about it. Mills is Computerworld’s careers editor and can be contacted at or ph: 03-467-2869 or fax: 0-3-467 2875.