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Never, Ever, Blow Your Cover

January 7, 2009
by Gwen Darling
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A cover letter is a first impression, and should be written with great care

Back in the late 80’s, as an English major with a newly-minted degree, I landed in Washington, DC for a two-year stint to work as a junior paralegal for a very large and prestigious law firm, DPandR. Each paralegal was assigned to a team of attorneys, with a partner heading up each team - in my case the venerable Alan S. Rosenblat. Alan was brilliant, old-school, gruff, and … completely and absolutely intimidating. (To say he was kind of a stickler for detail is like saying that Michael Jackson is kind of weird.) Alan’s reputation as a grammar taskmaster was well-known throughout the firm, and subsequently his team was given the responsibility of vetting the hundreds of resume’s that were sent by DPandR wannabes.

Somewhere along the way, Alan discovered my talent for spotting typos and grammatical errors (others’, not necessarily my own), and put me in charge of making the initial pass. For my first assignment, I was given a stack of 30 or so application packets, and told to read each cover letter carefully, looking for glaring mistakes. According to Alan, they were all “technically qualified,” but the real evidence we needed to make a case one way or another was going to be found in the cover letter. I remember taking this job very seriously, as I realized that someone’s hopes and dreams were in the balance, and so I granted forgiveness for what I considered to be minor infractions and returned to Alan’s office with a stack of 24 candidates remaining.

“Here Mr. Rosenblat,” I timidly offered, “I have 24 candidates in this stack.”

“Good! Shred the losers!” he barked.

“Ummm. No sir, I mean I have 24 remaining after I went through the cover letters.”

Alan jumped up, slammed his hand on his desk, and bellowed, “I thought you understood!” I’m convinced he was getting ready to tell me in no uncertain terms what I could do with my English degree, but he suddenly stopped, took a deep breath, and told me to pull up a chair (I’ll never know for sure why he changed course, but I heard later from several people that he thought - correctly - that I was about to crumble in a heap on his floor). Alan’s theory was simple – if they didn’t have enough respect for the firm to submit a flawless cover letter, thereby creating a strong first impression, he didn’t want them as a colleague, and he most definitely did not want them representing the firm. Period. We spent the next 20 minutes going over each cover letter again. Misspelled the firm’s name? Loser – OUT! Used “there” instead of “their?” Rookie – OUT! Forgot to include the date or sign the letter? Moron – OUT! In the end, we emerged from our tutoring session with three candidates who had not "blown their cover" and were DPandR-worthy of a second look. For the next two years I sent the vast majority of the hopefuls a very nice, and most certainly grammatically correct, rejection letter.

Granted, when the market is such that qualified candidates greatly outnumber the positions available, it’s easier to be a stickler. In theory, however, I tend to agree with ‘ole Mr. Rosenblat’s stringent hiring standards. A cover letter is a first impression, and should be written with great care, attention to detail, and above all, respect for the organization that the candidate is hoping to join. Although healthcare IT professionals may not be called upon to wax poetic on a daily basis, the ability to put a sentence together correctly and clearly is certainly beneficial, particularly when leading a hospital IT implementation or training effort. Many healthcare IT recruiting companies are now including a grammar test as part of their discovery process – great idea! An online option that I’ve used personally can be found here – and while you’re at it, take the test yourself. Because as Alan used to say, “Sweetheart…never, ever blow your cover.”

Take a look at these Cover Letters From Hell - super examples of what NOT to do!

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