In Defense of the Humble Cover Letter
When it comes to job-hunting, no single tool is as important as your resume. That doesn’t mean you should neglect other elements of your search, such as a social media presence and active networking; that’s pretty much a given. But there is one part of the job search that is getting less and less attention… and that’s probably not a good thing.
Let’s talk about cover letters.
In these days of virtual interviews and electronic everything, it’s easy to think that cover letter have outlived their usefulness. Regardless of what you might have heard, however, cover letters are not a useless formality. Sure, with the rise of online applications and social media recruiting, there may come a day when they become obsolete; to quote Aragorn, however, “it is not this day.”
Who Reads Cover Letters?
Generally speaking, recruiters won’t spend much time poring over your cover letter: face it, they’re less worried about presentation (they handle that aspect of things) then they are about making sure you’re qualified for the job. That information is pretty easy to find on your resume or online.
Human Resources Managers, on the other hand, tend to look at a bigger picture. They want to know who you are as a person, what they can expect from you, and how you’ll fit in with existing team members … and that’s the kind of stuff better seen in a cover letter.
And, too, the cover letter’s importance can be affected by multiple factors: for example, some organizations place more emphasis on cover letters than others, just because that is how they operate. In other situations, cover letters can play an extended role: when filling creative positions—designers, writers, art directors—the cover letter is often considered a portfolio piece in and of itself.
Cover Letters Are Still Important
Having a cover letter that no one reads is no big deal compared to NOT having a cover letter when a potential employer is looking for one. If a hiring manager is on the fence about whether or not to interview you, a strong cover letter may be what tips the scales in your favor. That in itself should be reason to spend some time optimizing your cover letters.
Don’t try to make a cover letter a copy of your resume: it’s job is merely to provide context for your resume. It should explain your interest in the position, demonstrate your communication skills, and help you make a more personal connection with the reader.
Like resumes, each cover letter should be customized for the company and position you’re applying for. Working from a standardized format is fine, but tailor the information to the job.
How long should it be? Opinions vary, but one of the best answers comes from a financial technology COO, who feels that the cover letter “… needs to be long enough to tell the story, no more, no less.” Whether that means a paragraph or an entire page depends on your story.
Another suggestion is formatting: keep your letter easy to read by keeping the paragraphs a reasonable length and breaking them up with subheadings. Before you consider it finished, read it aloud. Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. You might be amazed at the phrases that seemed fine when your wrote them, but can be confusing to someone who doesn’t know what you’re trying to say. You’ll also find more typos and omitted words this way.
A Final Word
All indications point to the impending demise of the cover letter … but it ain’t dead yet. When considering whether to include a cover letter not specifically asked-for, a post on career website Monster.com suggests you ask what’s more important: a letter explaining why you want the job, or bulleted facts in your resume showing you can do the job?
From where we stand, that seems like something of a sucker bet. One of the cardinal rules of copywriting is that maybe 3% of readers will actually read anything beyond the headline of an ad … BUT … that 3% is actually interested, so you’d BETTER have something there for them to read.
The same logic applies to cover letters. Most hiring managers may completely ignore your letter, but the ones who do read it are trying to learn more about you…isn’t it worth a few extra minutes of work to insure there is something there worth reading?