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Cover Letters: Essential or Obsolete? A Guide for When and How to Write and Send Them

Are cover letters a waste of time? Understand what cover letters can and cannot do in your job search.

May 19, 2011
from Robert Half International

It’s long been conventional wisdom in the job-hunting world that when you apply for a position, you should submit both your résumé and a cover letter highlighting your relevant qualifications and experience. But now that positions are primarily posted online, cover letters seem to be going the way of embossed stationery.

Only about 10 percent of applicants even submit hard-copy résumés (with or without cover letters) anymore. Often, online job postings have a “field” or box for uploading your résumé, but no place to include a cover letter. Some hiring managers say they get so many résumés, they have no time to read long-winded cover letters, confirming the suspicions of many candidates that the time they spent crafting the perfect cover letter was all for naught.

So are cover letters a waste of time and an unnecessary rehash of the information on your résumé? There’s no consensus among employers or job seekers, but the general feeling seems to be that a well-written cover letter can’t hurt — and may even boost — your chances of getting called in for an interview. When you do have a means to submit a letter, it can be a good way to distinguish yourself in a crowded field of applicants. But first, it’s important to understand what cover letters can and cannot do in the virtual world of job hunting.

Cover letters are not a magic key. If you’re cold-applying for a position online, realize that you are one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of candidates inundating the company with résumés. Your application will be routed to a blind mailbox where it will be like one more drop in an ocean of résumés. Adding a cover letter will not magically make your résumé rise to the top of the list or glow with distinction. In such a situation, you’re better served by doing some due diligence about the company first. Remember the principle of six degrees of separation? Try to find out who the hiring manager or key contact is at the company, and then check with your professional network to determine if you have any connection — however removed — to this individual. A brief cover letter sent by e-mail directly to that person – with an opening line to the effect that a “mutual acquaintance” referred you — will pack the greatest punch.

Cover letters do provide a personal touch. In situations where you’re able to send your résumé directly to an individual with a name and title (as opposed to the generic “HR Manager” or “Re: Job #763”), the cover letter is like a handshake that opens the conversation. Just as you wouldn’t walk up to someone and immediately launch into your personal “sales pitch,” similarly you don’t want to send a résumé without some sort of introductory document to ease the recipient into it. In this case, the cover letter actually accomplishes several goals at once — it demonstrates your awareness of job-seeking etiquette, showcases your communication skills and tells the potential employer that you know what information is most relevant and meaningful to them and have taken the trouble to present it in an accessible, easily digested way.

Cover letters sell the brand that is you. In terms of appearance, résumés are very uniform — the reverse chronological listing of jobs held, duties performed and accomplishments racked up. Résumés tell what you’ve already done; a cover letter can spell out what you want to do for the prospective employer. In the cover letter, you can make the connection between your unique combination of skills and experience and the needs of the company. In the résumé, the focus is on you. In the cover letter, the focus should be on the employer.

Think about commercials. The advertiser may mention qualities of the product (e.g., it’s the most efficient, economical, lowest-maintenance, highest-performing thing in its category). But the real reason advertisements get your attention and compel you toward making a purchase is because they stress the benefits to you (e.g., the product will make your life better, happier, more productive or fulfilling, etc).

Similarly, your cover letter should sell the brand that is you by explaining how you will help the company achieve its goals. You are not asking for a job; you are offering your expertise. To write this sort of cover letter, you need to be very familiar with the company. You have to do your homework and find out as much as you can about business objectives and unfilled needs. Then you can write a cover letter that helps the hiring manager imagine you as a value-adding employee.

This is not your father’s cover letter. If you are able to include a cover letter, don’t default to that old-form, three or four paragraph missive that job seekers used to send out. Today’s cover letters are sleek and succinct. The modern cover letter is not a cumbersome attachment. It’s a short paragraph or two within the body of your e-mail or the space allotted for “comments” in an online application. The tone is informal yet professional. And one thing that hasn’t changed: grammar and spelling are as essential as ever.

Of course, if the application instructions expressly state that you should send a “résumé only” or “no cover letter, please,” then you should comply. But when you do have the opportunity — or are encouraged — to submit one, remember that a modern, compelling cover letter can bring your personality to life in the two-dimensional virtual world. And it just might help you get your real foot in the door.

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