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Effective Job Search Preparation: Cover Letters that Work

Katz, Barbara

Career Source: Part 3 in a Series

Ms. Katz is the president of the Katz Company, an emergency medicine consulting firm dedicated to providing expert physician recruitment services and training emergency medicine residents in effective job searching.



A CV sells you as a physician; a cover letter sells you as a person. A CV tells what you are seeking and what you have to offer; a cover letter states why you are seeking it. Next to your CV, a cover letter is your most important sales tool when searching for a job. Most physicians don't bother with a cover letter; they just let the CV speak for itself. For an experienced doctor, that's usually fine, but for a graduating resident, the competition is too strong for such a strategy. A well crafted cover letter that targets a specific employer can be the difference between an interview and a place on the maybe pile.

In your salutation, never use “Dear Sirs” unless you want to be accused of being a sexist. And never send your CV to a title; send it to a person. Do your homework, and get a name. How? Call the emergency department, and ask for the name of the physician in charge of the department. Don't ask for the director's name because you'll probably get the nurse manager's name. Also ask for the chief's fax number and e-mail address.

If you tell a clerk you are an emergency physician who wants to send information to the chief, she'll tell you just about anything. The best way to get noticed is to gain the referral of a colleague who knows the chief. Create your list of target facilities, get the names of all the ED physician directors, and run them by your faculty and colleagues. You never know who knows whom unless you ask.

Never open a cover letter with a question: “Are you looking for an outstanding, residency-trained emergency physician who…?” The answer to that question is far too often, “No!” End of story. Begin your cover letter with a brief introduction. Don't go overboard; just introduce yourself simply and directly. Say who you are and the purpose of your letter. If referred by a colleague, that person's name should be right up front in your introduction.

The next portion is the pitch. Before contacting any potential employer, you should research its department and facility. The hospital web site, the contract group web site (if applicable), the area Chamber of Commerce, and the American Hospital Association Guide are good resources. Begin this section by stating the reasons for your interest in this particular department and facility. Follow that with your personal reasons for wanting to be in the area. These points can be as important to an employer as your professional interests. Most are concerned with retaining the physicians they hire. This applies especially to residency graduates because statistics show that graduates tend to leave their first job within two years. If you can demonstrate strong ties to an area, your viability as a potential candidate should rise significantly. Again, the pitch should demonstrate your interest in this specific job, not just any job.

Don't use the same letter for different employers; form letters are easily recognized and easily ignored

Paragraph three is the justification showing why you are the right person for the job. Summarize what you bring to the table professionally. Because you are providing a CV, you don't have to repeat it in the cover letter; just highlight what you think makes you particularly appealing to this employer. You can refer back to the professional points in your pitch, but keep it short and sweet. Don't be too general, and watch the superlatives (fabulous, outstanding, awesome, etc.). You have to be able to live up to your bio!

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Follow-up Phone Call

The final section is the declaration and closing. This is where you state your intentions. If you plan to be in the area in the near future, make it clear that you would like to meet with the director during that trip, and provide dates when you are available. Most directors will make time to meet a qualified candidate if there is no cost involved.

If you are sending a speculative cover letter (you are focused on a specific facility but have no reason to believe there is a position open at this time), encourage the meeting anyway, acknowledging the lack of an immediate opening. That situation could change quickly.

Most people close a cover letter by stating their hope to hear from the addressee in the near future. That's the wimp's way! Take the initiative, and say when you are going to make the follow-up call. Don't let more than a week go by. You want to give the addressee time to read the letter and CV, but also want it to be fresh in his mind. Five business days should do it. Close with “Sincerely,” and don't forget to sign it.

A good cover letter is typed, and doesn't exceed one page. Don't include anything else. With an effective cover letter and strong CV, you won't need anything else. Snail mail and fax are the best, but e-mail can be used if absolutely necessary.

I won't promise you instant results from every letter you send out, but I will promise your odds of producing a positive response will increase significantly. Create a file for everyone you contact that includes any research and a copy of the cover letter so you can refer back to it when you do get the person on the phone. Remember, a cover letter must be target-specific to be effective, so don't use the same letter for different employers. Form letters are easily recognized and just as easily ignored!

© 2006 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.