How long should you actually be spending on a cover letter?
A friend and I were recently reminiscing about baking with our grandmothers, an activity that many of us likely have fond memories of.
I shared that I was always amazed that my grandmother could whip up a batch of chocolate chip cookies without using a recipe or even a timer.
She could simply look through the oven window and know when they would be perfect inside and out.
I can remember asking her, “How do you know how long they should be in there?” She’d always reply, “It’s always a little different, but you’ll learn to get a sense for when they’re ready.”
I smile thinking about those conversations as now, years later, I am often asked about how much time should be spent on the various tasks needed to pursue a new career. How long should it take to craft a resume?
How many minutes should I arrive before a scheduled interview? After an interview, how long should I wait before reaching back out to the interviewer? All of these are valid concerns, and much time has been spent trying to pinpoint what works best.
A young job-seeker presented me with this quandary: “Michelle, I know I shouldn’t use a cookie-cutter cover letter, but how long should I be spending on each one that I write?”
It’s a fantastic question that unfortunately can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. If you’ve also wondered how much time to invest in creating custom cover letters, here are three points to consider:
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1. Understand Your Audience
My grandmother knew that we were a family of cookie-to-milk dippers, so rather than trying to achieve a super soft cookie, she focused on baking cookies that could stand up to a thorough dunking. As you think about your cover letter, aside from knowing what you want to convey, you should understand who will be reading it and how much time they have to invest.
Don’t waste time approaching the task like a novelist; keep in mind that hiring managers and recruiters simply cannot spend that much time reading each and every cover letter so you shouldn’t spend that much time creating them.
In the 2013 Society for Human Resource Management survey around resumes, cover letters, and interviews, more than three-quarters of respondents (76 percent) indicated they spend less than five minutes screening. If you’re spending hours toiling over each cover letter, it is safe to say that you’re over-investing in this area.
2. Know What to Recycle
Unless you’re literally shot-gunning for any available position (and if so, we should talk about a new strategy), the jobs you’re seeking are going to be related to one another. Once you have written your first cover letter, there are going to be elements that can be transferred over to additional cover letters. It behooves you to understand which elements can simply be reused.
First things first: your introductory paragraph should not be a carbon copy. If there’s any possibility that it could be reused for multiple employers, know that it is likely going to come across as canned. That said, as you delve further into the letter, consider reusing, or sampling, portions that tie your skill sets to a particular job. Again, this won’t be a simple cut and paste job, however, it should provide a solid framework.
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3. The 1,200 Second Habit
Twelve hundred seconds equates to 20 minutes and, according to Allison Green, this is about how long you should devote to each cover letter. With that, keep in mind that this is simply a guidepost. If you find you can knock out a cover letter in 15 minutes, awesome. If it takes you 30 minutes, so be it.
Looking back toward the SHRM study, aside from the connection and content your cover letter is set to make, be sure that you’re focused on grammar and spelling. While you may be “the one” in terms of skills and experience, a sloppy cover letter could be what nets you a “thank you for applying” rejection letter.
Cookies and cover letters are vastly different (unless you’re an aspiring baker). However, there are some lessons that carry over. As you look to perfect your job searching skills and maximize the use of your time, consider these tips for guidance.
Finally, let us look no further than one of the most famous chocolate chip cookie pioneers, Wally Amos, for inspiration: “I believe, along with many others, that you must first ask for what you want before you can have it.” Now get into the kitchen… er, open that laptop and get writing.
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