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What are the two most important letters? - July 7th, 2014

This is no trick question. Linguists might say E, T, or A – the most oft-used letters in English; egotists will choose I or their initials; and philosophers will insist on A and Z, alpha and omega.

But your career coach – yours truly – says your two most important letters are cover and thank you. (You knew that was coming.)

Amazed that people still ask whether to send cover letters, I thought I’d have been done writing about this years ago. Alas.

OK, one more time, but let’s understand why.

Resumes and cover letters should complement each other. It’s not enough to send a cover letter with each resume, and it’s not enough for the letter to serve only as an announcement that a resume follows. In other words, a cover letter that wastes time on what job you’re applying for and that you “read with great interest...blah, blah, blah” is a vestigial organ like your appendix; it’s there but it doesn’t do anything.

Make your resume and cover letter work together. While your resume is the most important piece of communication you’ll ever write, your cover letter may be your only chance to convince someone to read it. So, make your letter an attention-getter – not by making it lengthy (more than three good, short paragraphs and a few bullet points is too much); not by using bloated language (simple, natural language, the way you normally talk, is best); and not by being arrogant (believe it or not, people still say stuff like “If you’re looking for a top-performing sales pro, then look no further. I’m your man.”). Just make your letter short and to the point. How short? Well, how much time do you think the reader has? The answer is, not much.

So, because you want someone to read it and because you want to convey the message that you respect someone’s time, stick to four guidelines: (1) Start with why you’re writing. (2) Highlight key qualifications and/or relevant accomplishments. (3) Tell them something specific you know about them from your research. (4) End by asking for a meeting.

All that included, if you can read your letter in 30 seconds or less, so can they.

And as for customizing, here’s where you say things directly to them that your resume can’t, like “Your ad stated a need for someone who can develop new business. I led our sales force with a 58% increase in new clients” or “My strategic human resources background can help your company’s reorganization efforts.” These are specific statements that compel readers to read resumes. Then, resumes tell the rest of the story.

And that, in a nutshell, is how cover letters and resumes work together.

Now then, with all the talk about great cover letters, we often overlook the importance of thank you letters, which are just as important as cover letters and, if done right, even more – for many reasons.

Most obvious is that it proves that mama brought you up right, that you have basic manners. Don’t overlook this. Manners matter. It’s also highly professional, and no business transaction is complete without it.

Further, a thank you letter becomes your second appearance in front of the decision maker. You’ve worked hard to get your resume to the right person who then called you for an interview, right? That’s it? Don’t you want more.

So the key question is not whether, but how, to send it: regular mail or email? The answer is not either, but both. First, email it, being careful to be typo-free. Now, under your signature, write: “PS. Hard copy to follow.” Now send. Next, on nice stationary or a simple thank you card, handwrite the same letter (minus the PS, of course) and mail it, hopefully the same day. What you will have when the hard copy reaches the interviewer is not just one more appearance, but two. Excellent!

Thank you letters also let you reinforce an important point that was discussed during the meeting, perhaps the one on which the hiring decision hangs. When the hiring process culminates, the employer has to sort out lots of candidates, conversations, and evaluations, so it’s easy to forget things you’ve said. This is one way to combat that.

Beyond that, thank you letters can add to the conversation and raise a point you didn’t get to but should have (that happens in most interviews), so this is a way to extend the interview, not a bad strategy. Remember, though, that brevity is critical. You should be able to write a good thank you letter in under 100 words. And finally, thank you letters are placed in your file, and at the end of the hiring process, your file is opened and reviewed. And there’s your thank you letter sitting there. Come to think about it, that’s your third additional appearance.

With all these good reasons for sending a thank you letter, shouldn’t you be doing it? Every single time?

Smart job seekers have thank you letter templates, just as they have cover letter templates. A little customization after each interview, and a great thank you letter is on its way.

Once more: What are the two most important letters?