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How to land that dream HR job?

Answer by A Quora admin: Victoria Darling

Great question! Here are the suggestions I give to everyone on how (and why) to write a great cover letter, and I’ve added a few specifics on applying for HR roles.


1. Avoid getting cut. The most important thing to keep in mind is that recruiters scan through applicants looking for anyone they can eliminate first. Your job is to avoid anything that will get you cut from further consideration, so avoid a letter that’s too short or too long, strays from the point, and comes across as embellished, inflated, desperate, or cocky. Don’t talk about anything in your cover letter that doesn’t relate to the job at hand. And appropriately address any red flags they might find when they see your resume. If you moved from city to city, explain how you’re ready to settle and put down roots. If you have a four year gap in the last 15 years of employment, say why in a manner that is both believable and (most importantly) beneficial to your qualifications or your contributions as an employee. (Talk to a career coach for 10-15 minutes and they can help if you need it on this one.)

2. Know the impact. The ONLY purpose of the cover letter is to generate hopeful interest in your resume, and give you an advantage over other candidates applying for the same position. If you can generate a memorable first impression on your cover letter, then your resume will have half a chance of being seriously considered. When combined with your interview(s), your cover letter and resume help form a picture in the minds of the hiring managers and stakeholders about who you might or might be as a future member of their team.

3. Keep it brief, but not too brief. The entire cover letter should comprise 2-3 paragraphs total, not counting the opening line where you state your interest in the specific job title and the “Sincerely” at the bottom. I’ve done a few senior-executive cover letters that had 2-3 paragraphs, and also added a few bulleted points, and that’s fine – but that’s it. Recruiters generally juggle upwards of 25 open reqs at any given time, and handle a TON of correspondence related to each one. They have to quick-scan submissions or they’d never wade through them all. If your letter is wordy or too brief, they’ll make some assumptions about your level of interest or your personality and toss you in favor of others who did a better job at succinctness or (professional) enthusiasm.

4. Tailor it to EVERY job you apply for. There is never any excuse to copy and paste generic words when the fate of your future livelihood and professional happiness are on the line. Anything that isn’t tailored to that specific role comes across as insincere and recruiters can sniff it out. They’re always more likely to choose candidates that took the time to personalize a cover letter. Recruiters see on average more than 100 cover letters a day – sometimes ten times that number when their other duties aren’t pressing in. If 25% are so poorly written they get tossed immediately, and another 50% are tossed because candidates aren’t qualified, then that means you’re still competing with 25 other people – most of who failed to personalize their letter. Always make yours the shining beacon.

5. Make it personal, but not too personal. You want them to get a glimpse of your personality, but they would rather have insight on how you’d be a good fit for their team. How do the two differ? Humility. Someone who is humble, hardworking, and eager to please will fit in almost anywhere. You never know when your *exact* personality type is a complete misfit for the employees they already have, so refrain from revealing anything other than your genuine interest in helping their firm.

6. Use every day speech. You don’t get credit for using words like ‘calibrated for success’ when you mean you’ll ‘work hard to ensure no project ever fails under your watch’. You’re talking to a real person, and that real person is bombarded daily by folks who only see them as the gate keeping them from what they want. Dumb down your language so it’s readable to a fifth-grader, and make it sincere and heartfelt without being sappy. Say, “I want to work for <firm name> because I like problem-solving for companies who inspire me to be my best.” — NOT — “As an aficionado of <firm name> I have upgraded my qualifications to better align myself with your objectives.”

7. Be direct, without being cocky. Say you are a “strong fit” for the position right up front, but never, ever say you’re an “exceptional” fit because THEY are the only ones who might know who’d be exceptional in the role. Give them room to come to their own conclusions. The same is true of asking for the interview. Some resume coaches will encourage you to say, “Please let me know the best time to schedule an interview with you”, but I say that’s rubbish. If a salesperson called you on the phone and said that would you do anything but hang up? I wouldn’t. Instead, phrase it something like this: “I appreciate your consideration and would really enjoy an opportunity to discuss this role further.”

8. Hint at what they’ll find in the resume. List a few key skills and a couple of your strengths as they relate to THIS position. As I’ve said above, never send out a generic one-size-fits-all letter or resume. Give them an example of how you’ve excelled and how it might apply to the role they offer. Try to avoid what they might see on every other cover letter. Saying you’re “good at attention to detail” is fine, but it’s so commonly used that ‘accuracy fanatic’, ‘meticulousness’, and ‘diligent fact-checker’ are more refreshing and believable.

9. Want to work in HR? Then remember to include references to soft skills too! Unless you work in a counseling center of some type, HR is the one department in the building where soft skills are critical. Impatient with rude people? Gifted at finishing the sentences of others? Have a habit of interrupting or making assumptions? Uncomfortable talking to transgender folks? Then HR is not the right place for you. Your skills in employee recognition award campaigns and PeopleSoft database management might be rock solid, but if you aren’t a compassionate listener with an even-keel personality and a safe, calm port in the stormy chaos of office politics then they will not want you. Make certain you reference one or two soft skills that you bring so they have at least a small sense that you’re aware of the sensitivities these roles demand.

10. And finally, proof, proof, and RE-PROOF! Here are the proofing steps I take with every cover letter I write. You can never do too much proofing! If you change even ONE word you should re-read the entire document. You’d be surprised how often someone will make one small edit which accidentally changes or affects the tone, flow, syntax, punctuation, and grammar – not to mention making a typo that SpellChecker failed to catch.

  • Spacing. Are there any spaces at the beginning of each paragraph or bullet (like there is on this one)? Do any words have two  spaces between them (like there is in this sentence)? Do all your sentences have one or two spaces between them—are they consistently one or other? (Both options are fine, but they must be the same all the way through the document.)
  • Punctuation.
  • Capitalization.
  • Alignment on the page.
  • Font size.
  • (Less often) font color. (Some folks use a template that has dark grey or light black text, and then they make edits that are default black without realizing it.)
  • Then I read the entire document out loud to myself, which provides a good syntax and flow check. (You’d be shocked how different words sound when your ears hear the words that you thought were fine when you read them on the page.)

Hope that helps! If you’d like write up your cover letter and send it to me I’d be happy to review it for free! No hassles, no pushy sales stuff. I promise. J

I want to write a great cover letter for a job application in Human Resources. What does a good cover letter look like? What aspects shou…

Cover image courtesy – Flickr user Roger Bakker

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