Much has been said about the death of the cover letter. They’re a waste of effort. No one reads them. They’re full of fluff. Even HR experts have written obituaries for the cover letter.
Cover letters can still be extremely useful in the job search process by filling in where your resume leaves off. They don’t have to be formal, but should do the following:
- Demonstrate your interest. Sure, sending in an application or resume says you’re interested in the position, but how many other applications have you sent out? Including a cover letter tells the employer that you’re interested in them specifically, not just any job with a paycheck.
- Put things in perspective. Sending in resume without a cover letter leaves it up to the evaluator to connect the dots between your experience and their needs. These days, with hundreds of applicants for each job posting, employers have less time to spend on each applicant, so make it easy for them and point out the connections yourself.
- Show your skills. If you know how to use language and punctuation correctly and effectively, you’re a catch for any job. Your letter of interest can drive this point home much better than noting previous writing experience or an English degree on your resume (which, while nice, are not the best indicators of writing ability, in my experience).
- Infuse personality. The goal of your cover letter is to snag an interview. Make them want to meet you. Be careful with humor or sarcasm, though, which are better saved for face-to-face interactions when body language and facial expressions can come into play.
It’s been a while since I’ve been on the job hunt; more recently I’ve been on the other end when positions have opened up in my department, poring through hundreds of cover letters and resumes. Yes, you heard right. Reading, editing and evaluating every word and period on each letter. Applicants who didn’t include a cover letter or had a poorly written cover letter usually weren’t convincing enough to score an interview. While this is probably expected behavior for a communications and marketing department, the truth is that, with email fast-replacing phone calls and in-person interaction, written communication skills are more important than ever.
As with any job search advice, this one will vary by industry, company and even hiring manager. HR folks might not read cover letters anymore, but you never know who else is weighing in on the decision (in our organization, HR screened applicants for minimum qualifications and conducted and assessed applicants through phone interviews, but we had access to all qualified applications and final say on who to interview and hire). One thing is true, though: a well-written cover letter never hurts.
The New Professional column continues the series of professional development and workplace etiquette posts from its namesake blog. Archives of my career-related posts are available here (The New Professional blog).