"The cover letter is dead." You may have heard this pronouncement from friends or colleagues, who cite the trend toward electronic submission of resumes and the ever-shrinking attention span of application readers as reasons.
But according to those who think deeply about the particular challenges facing job seekers age 50 and above, the statement can be reversed: "Long live the cover letter!"
The cover letter is an age-neutral communication that can build a bridge from your impressive career achievements to the prospective employer's specific needs and help punch your ticket to a job interview.
That's why experts recommend using cover letters (or cover messages, for electronic submissions) to introduce professional connections, project youthful energy, demonstrate writing prowess, and -- to set the stage for an upbeat interview -- adroitly dispense with challenges such as resume gaps and requests for salary history.
Customization Is King
Because older workers have so much to gain through the cover letter, customizing the message to the opportunity is particularly important. "People send me the same cover letter that they sent to the last 10 positions they applied for," says Sarah Hightower Hill, CEO of Chandler Hill Partners, a career search strategies firm. "That's just crazy."
If possible, start the letter with a reference to a professional colleague who connects you to the prospective employer. "Lead with the person who refers you," says Carleen MacKay, a practice leader at staffing firm Spherion Corp. If you've chosen the connection wisely, you'll vastly increase the chances of getting your resume read.
Now use the cover letter -- a faceless, ageless message -- to communicate your core qualifications for the job opening. Resist the temptation to cite years of experience or encyclopedic knowledge of your industry's history. Instead, concentrate on recent, specific accomplishments that make you a match for the job.
Also use the cover message to showcase your business writing skills and familiarity with the language of your industry or occupation. You're likely to have emerged from the US education system before it descended into its present state of mediocrity, and this should show in your writing.
Confront Difficult Issues and Put Them Behind You
If elements of your resume might raise substantial questions for its reviewers, it's best to address these in the cover letter, where you can carefully calibrate your response -- without revealing your age.
"It's important to get stuff like resume gaps out of the way immediately," says Brian Drum, CEO of Drum Associates, a search firm. The second half of the cover message is a good place to do so.
"If salary history is a requirement of the job posting, one must address it, and not superficially or deceptively," says Hill. For older workers, especially those who want to deemphasize the high salary band they've reached in recent years, "it is appropriate to say, Through my career, I've earned salaries in a range from..."
Finally, have a trusted colleague read through your cover letter to check the tone and avoid embarrassing spelling, grammar and other errors. After all, crafting an important document with care is one of the skills that can help make the case for your candidacy ahead of younger competitors.