Contractors’ Questions: Should a CV cover letter read like a list of keywords?

Contractor’s Question: I’ve just got my CV and cover letter back from an expert CV writer and I’m not overly impressed. The letter annoys me the most – rather than be pitch-like, much of the letter is a breathless list of keywords. The CV writer argues that my letter cannot be just descriptions, and said the keywords neatly encapsulate my skills and experience.

As many of the keywords are mentioned in a job advert I’m eying, I do partly agree. But it still reads too like a shopping list, and I’d challenge anyone to get through the paragraphs that do contain the keywords, as there are just so many! And it’s off-putting to read. Any ideas?

Expert’s Answer: Firstly, for you and other contractors unsure about the rights and wrongs of CVs and the like, I’m going to be available this evening in a free CV workshop webinar exclusively for ContractorUK readers.

As to your question, it really is a tricky one for me as I can see both sides of the argument. So without seeing the document in question, it’s hard for me to assess definitively.

What I can tell you with certainty, is that a good CV and cover letter must appeal to both humans and machines! If they don’t get past the initial recruitment software / ‘ATS’, then a human will never get to read it. But, if they are just stuffed full of keywords and it reads like a dogs dinner, then the human probably won’t respond to it well anyway.

To be frank, and sorry to potentially disappoint you if you just parted with some hard-earned cash for the service you’re not ecstatic about, I’m not convinced that contractors’ recruiters spend an awful lot of time reading cover letters anyway.

They are certainly a ‘nice-to-have,’ but a generic introductory letter serves little purpose for many contract, temporary or freelance roles. Therefore, perhaps using that document as your ‘keyword-stuffed’ tool might not be a bad idea.

A more job or contract-specific ‘Supporting Statement’ carries more weight because, when composed correctly, it’s something that outlines your suitability for that particular job. In the main though, most recruiters of professional contractors don’t spend much time focusing on such secondary documents --  they are much more concerned with your CV. And a close second for them, is a good nosey at your LinkedIn profile.

Some other good tactics for optimising your CV for machines, recruitment software and the likes of ATS include:

  • Making sure the headings are obvious in terms of their meaning and wording
  • Checking that the words you use are the same words that the recruitment software algorithm has been programmed to find
  • Typing your job title or specialisation as a contractor (or what you want to be known as, professionally) after your name, as this will signpost ‘what you are’ to the software
  • Creating and inserting a ‘Key Skills’ section, a bit like a ‘menu’ for the reader, will SEO your CV
  • Ensuring your postcode features prominently, as ATS often looks for candidates within a certain radius of where the job is based.

If you remain at odds with the CV expert about how to proceed, I would be happy to take a look at your CV and cover letter, with a view to giving an impartial response to the question of how both measure up to best-practice, and will measure up in practice. Potentially more importantly if you’re still stuck, my CV building workshop from 7.15pm this evening is free for ContractorUK readers to attend if they register with this link: https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/9090220474596324609

The expert was Contractor CV review specialist Matt Craven, founder of The CV & Interview Advisors.

Tuesday 29th Jan 2019