Are Cover Letters Passé?

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I don’t know how this myth that cover letters are “old school” was started but you need to know that a cover letter can be the difference between your application moving forward or being tossed in the trash!

As a hiring manager for over 10 years and a career coach for the last six, I’ve always been a big fan of Cover Letters.  I believe that they are a powerful tool for job seekers and to make their application packet stand out and secure an interview. 

The cover letter is the first opportunity to review an applicant’s ability to write in a professional, concise manner. Writing continues to be at the top of the list of desired baseline skills that are most commonly requested by employers. A cleverly crafted cover letter that demonstrates your ability to deliver your point with accuracy goes a very long way.

But what of this rumor? Do you need a cover letter, or not?  After reviewing articles and blogs from 2012 to today I discovered two findings:

  • The majority of those writing about cover letters believe that they ARE still an important part of an application packet. 
  • Most cover letters go unread by recruiters and Human Resource screeners.

So, it appears that role of the cover letter has changed. No longer do you introduce your resume or CV with a letter on the finest linen stationary.  Today, letter are usually printed, if at all, on whatever paper HR happens to have in the printer.  

Is It Appropriate to Skip the Cover Letter?

The general consensus is that cover letters ARE an important part of your application packet, not the first look, perhaps, but still important.  If the application instructions expressly say not to include a cover letter, or if an online application offers no opportunity, then you can forego the cover letter in these cases.

Why should you include a cover letter?

A cover letter and resume act as a packet that helps job seekers build their own personal brand, the same way an advertising company promotes a product’s brand. So, your cover letter and resume are your packet that allows you to express how you fit for a job and how you are different from other candidates, just in the way you organize and express yourself. You need to express both how you fit for a job or organization and how you stand out from others in order for someone hiring to choose you from a stack of many.

So, pay attention to what is asked for in each job you apply for. If an organization requests a resume and cover letter, they expect to receive a resume and cover letter.  If an organization requests only a resume, they expect only a resume. This may be a test to see how well you follow directions.  Not including a cover letter only demonstrates your lack of attention to detail and your resume could be tossed aside. Including an unasked for letter could demonstrate a lack of attention, as well. When in doubt, follow the instructions.

If Recruiters aren’t reading your cover letters then who is?

Recruiters and HR screeners focus primarily on matching the skills outlined in the resume with the skills required for the position. Because of this, it is a high probability that they will not review your cover letter. 

Don’t get discouraged if you’ve heard “no one” reads the letters. It’s important to know who is making the comment -- recruiter, HR administrator, or hiring manager -- and understand their role and degree of involvement in the hiring process.

In that first screen, recruiters and HR screeners will be focusing on your resume. So why write a cover letter if it’s not being considered at that point? While it might be disappointing that your carefully crafted letter is not being read yet, remember it’s still a level playing field. The recruiter is not picking and choosing which letters to read, so it’s not like they are reading another candidate’s letter but not yours.

This is why it’s so important for all your application documents to be strong. If your resume lacks key evidence of your qualifications, your cover letter is not going to save you…but once you’ve made the first cut, you can wow the hiring manager even more if your cover letter speaks to them.

Hiring managers and people who will work closest to the prospective employee look deeper into an applicant’s credentials.  The cover letter can help the manager see how this person fits into an organization and team. 

Five Do’s & Don’ts for Writing a Cover Letter

The cover letter is designed to accomplish three things: introduce yourself as a person, express your interest in the company and position, and get an interview.

There are several formats for writing a cover letter.  The one consistent rule among hiring managers is that cover letters must be short and to the point.  Many advisors recommend three key components be included in your cover letter:

  • Why you are writing
  • What you have to offer
  • How you will follow-up

DON’T use a generic cover letter

Employers want to know that you are passionate about working for them.  The hiring process is expensive and time consuming.  Employers don’t want to hire someone who is “lukewarm.”   They want to bring on people who demonstrates commitment to the company, the project and the existing team.

What if you are applying for dozens, hundreds of jobs?

I know that people apply for lots and lots of jobs so writing and researching individual companies is daunting without a really good plan.

My suggestions for this: organize the jobs into piles for a particular occupation, then make a cover letter with passionate verbiage for that job type. Make a template for each of that type, then go back to the company and pick one thing about each company that makes you like it.

What is important, is that your letter has a line or two directed specifically to their company. 

DON’T address your cover letter:  "to whom it may concern."

 Addressing a letter this way makes it look impersonal.  It also sends the message that you don’t care enough to look up the person’s name. Address the letter to the person who does the hiring. In most cases, this will be a hiring manager, not human resources, unless you are applying for a job in HR. If you’ve read the description carefully, there may actually be a contact name listed. If not, the posting may indicate who the job reports to, such as the senior project manager within a named group.

If you are unable to find a name on the past, use your resources to get a likely one. Go to LinkedIn, and search for that job title and department. Or use a search engine, and enter the job title and department information in the job posting. If you’ve done your due diligence and can’t find the name, use the job title one level above. If nothing is available, which is highly unlikely, then – and only then – you can use a generic addressee, like "Hiring Manager."

Also pay careful attention to names and other details. I have one of those confusing names that can be considered gender neutral.  Letters addressed to Mr. Grier just don’t get the same level of attention.  If you go through the trouble of personalizing it, get the name right.

DO make your first two sentences stand out.

When you apply for any job, the very first tool you will use to grab the attention of employers is your cover letter.

Often, cover letters are unexciting. Don’t start you cover letter like everyone else by stating something like, “attached you will find my résumé for your Nursing Assistant job.”

Most job seeking experts will tell you that the first two sentences of your cover letter are the most crucial. The opening two sentences on your cover letter are similar to an elevator pitch: a brief statement about a product, service, or company that business owners have at the ready whenever they meet a prospective client. In your cover letter, you're the product, and the opening statement is your pitch.

You'll want to include several things: your knowledge and experience in the field, how you can benefit the company, and your accomplishments in past positions. Be succinct, and pack a punch.

Poor Example

I'm applying for the Accountant I position because I want to find a place to use the skills I acquired in college as a Business Accounting major. I have a degree from 123 University, and after I graduated in 2012 I worked for ABC Corporation.

Good Example

As a graduate from the Business Accounting department of 123 University with over two years of experience at top firms such as ABC Corporation, I feel that I am an excellent fit for the Accountant I position. While at ABC I was able to improve the efficiency of the accounting procedures by 20%, was instrumental in the development of new software that helped improve payroll accuracy, and routinely advised Human Resources and the CEO on accounting matters.

Heather Huhman in her article, “5 Opening Lines For Your Cover Letter To Get Noticed”highlights several ways you can start your cover letter and make it grab their attention. 

DO Your Research on the Organization. 

Make sure you understand what the values and the vision of the organization are before you write your cover letter. Taking time to review the organization’s website, press releases, and leadership will help you get a better feel of the corporate culture and how you might fit in.  If appropriate, learn about some of the projects and clients they are working with.

Tell the employer why you want to work at this company!  Cover letters give you the opportunity to highlight some of your soft skills with direct examples of projects that required communication, leadership, time management and initiative.  Remember, that the company is looking for examples of what you can do for them.  They are less interested in hearing what you want from them. 

One question every employer wants you to answer is “why us?” Explain in a sentence or two why you want to work at that company. Do your best to specifically explain why you would be a good fit in the company.

DO set an expectation that you will follow up.

Too often, candidates' applications get misplaced in the shuffle of paperwork. The only way to know for sure that the company received your materials is if you contact the HR to verify your application was received.

DO double and triple check your cover letter for any grammar mistakes.  

Also, pay careful attention to the spelling of the organization and the way the organization presents its name. For example, AmeriCorps uses a capital “C” in its name.  Make sure you get the branding correctly and use the branding the way the organization uses it.

If you want to get the next step in the job search process, you need to include a personalized cover letter for each position you are submitting an application to. While the majority of people in the hiring process don’t read the cover letter, those that read it really care about it. Since you will never know in advance of sending your cover letter whether or not it will matter, you have to assume it will matter and take great care with your cover letter.

All you need is three simple paragraphs that make the best possible impression and illustrate that you match the employer's requirements. Whether it is an e-mail or, a nicely formatted PDF, don't miss this opportunity to reinforce your fit to the job, or to clarify some issue that otherwise might get the wrong impression.

Oh . . . one more DON’T.  . .  Don’t submit a 2-3 page cover letter.  If you want to get it read, consider your audience and be respectful of their time.  Too much information creates clutter and your message is lost.  Recently, a hiring manager told me, “People with lengthy, wordy cover letters strike me the wrong way.  Overcompensation?  Lack of confidence? Inability to know when enough is enough?  Those are some of the things I’m thinking after I sigh when I see it’s a three pager!”

Remember, the goal of a cover letter is to land the interview. So, hit the major points, and then stop. Hopefully the employer will be enticed to read your resume, and call you in immediately for an interview.

About the Author: Teri Grier is a part-time instructor at Southwestern Oregon Community College and a nationally recognized Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation. She has over 15 years’ experience onboarding, training and managing teams. She is a graduate from Georgetown University's School of Continuing Studies where she received a graduate certificate in Leadership Coaching.  In addition to her coaching credentials, she has a Master’s in Public Administration and a BS in Communications from Northern Arizona University.

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