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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Your resume has 6 Seconds to make an impact

Today’s resumes need to be less about lists of job responsibilities and more about telling your story so that it demonstrates how your skills add value to the organization. Additionally, you have to use a tone that resonates with the reader and makes you memorable.

You only have about six seconds to grab their attention. That is right – six seconds.

This was confirmed in a 2012 study using hiring professionals.  Investigators used eye-tracking technology to record where they focused and how long they reviewed each resume.  The results showed an average of six seconds for each resume.

The study’s “gaze tracking” technology showed that recruiters spent almost 80% of their resume review time on:

  • Name
  • Current and previous positions including company name, job title, dates of employment; and
  • Education

Beyond these points, recruiters scanned for keywords that matched the job responsibilities of the open position.


Six Recommendations for Grabbing the Readers Attention


0. Use readily available templates to find formats that best suit your situation:


1. Use a recognized resume format.

A common mistake people make in an effort to make their resumes a bit flashier is to get creative with the formatting. And while this is sometimes okay in artistic or graphic design professions, in general you really don’t want to mix up the standard resume formatting too much. You want to make it as easy as possible for the recruiters to find what they’re looking for.

Resumes are like the trailer for a movie.  They should leave the reader wanting to meet you.  As such, it’s important to decide format best tells your story.  Depending on the type of job you are applying to, different resume formats may apply. The four standard types of resumes include 1) chronological, 2) functional, 3) combination, or 4) targeted.

Whichever format you use, make sure your skills are seen, not tucked them away somewhere unexpected. Keep your name and contact information at the top, make your section headings stand out through bolding, underlining, or all-caps text, and have your achievements written out as bulleted statements.

It’s all about making it easy to find the right information to convince them to move you on in the recruiting process—not to win a graphic design contest. (Unless, well, you’re going for a graphic design job.)


2. Include the link to your on-line professional profile.

All recent graduates should have at least one on-line profile established for their professional brand. Those who plan to work in a more creative field should develop an online portfolio and list the link to that site on your resume as part of their contact information. There are several free online platforms that you can use to manage your professional profile.  One of the most used platforms is LinkedIn.  In addition to establishing a professional profile, LinkedIn is also used by recruiters for job openings and can serve as an electronic rolodex.

 If you're concerned about employers finding your personal profiles, increase the security settings or consider changing the account name on your personal accounts to your first and middle name, so they won't be associated with your professional brand.


3. If you are still in school or a recent college graduate you should include your GPA.

The general rule of thumb is that if your GPA is above a 3.0, then you should include it in your internship or recent-graduate resume.  If the GPA in your major is higher than your overall GPA, use that instead. Anything below a 3.0 should not be included on your resume. However, be aware that recruiters know why you didn't include the GPA and you may be asked about it.


4. Make sure your resume includes examples of accomplishments using baseline skills.

What are Baseline Skills? 

Baseline skills are often referred to as foundational or soft skills.  In fact, a recent study by Burning Glass revealed that on average, one in three skills requested in job postings is a “baseline skill.”  Even the most technical of occupations such as IT and Engineering show that more than a quarter of the skill descriptions are baseline skills.  In fact, baseline skills make up to between 25-50 percent of the job responsibilities depending on the occupation.

What does this mean to you?

It is important that you look at all of your experience; this includes education, volunteer opportunities, internships and any work experience to develop examples of success using baseline skills. 

When appropriate, include a list of relevant courses you've taken and a description of projects or activities where you used specific baseline skills.  But, only include those courses that directly relate to the job or internship you are applying for.  Remember that different occupations demand different baseline skills.


IT jobs emphasize writing, organizational and planning; but place less emphasis on being a self-starter, critical thinking, a positive disposition or having strong typing skills.  By contrast, sales occupations are more likely to need employees that have strong time management skills, are effective at building relationships and have strong typing skills.

Interestingly, the study also shows that in every occupational area, the top baseline skills needed are:  

  • Communication
  • Organizational Skills
  • Writing

For more information about the top baseline skills by career area check out “The Human Factor, The Hard Time Employers Have Finding Soft Skills,”  by Burning Glass Technologies.  This report highlights those skills which are more commonly requested, and considered more valuable in each occupational area.


5. Professional summaries should highlight accomplishment and provide examples of how you add value.

While it can be tempting to throw a few buzzwords such as "proactive" and "motivated" into a professional summary, recruiters recognize these words and they are not impactful. Don't tell employers that you're a great team player; explain how your team was able to improve a process, increase alumni donations, or received acknowledgment from the school for their exemplary volunteer work.

If you believe that you are a strong writer, provide examples of the types of writing, if it was published or how it is being used.

Don’t include a list of tasks you were responsible for.  Instead, focus on what you have accomplished and how you contributed to an end result, increasing revenue, or cut costs.  Use action verbs, like 'created,' 'led,' 'managed,' 'improved,' 'developed,' and 'built' to describe your activities.

Accomplishments are examples of how you contributed to your employer, or it's an achievement that reflects the kind of worker you are. The most convincing accomplishments are measurable.


An office administrator relays her dedication to quality: “Achieved a record of zero errors in the bi-annual audit.”

A human resources professional explains his skills as a thought leader: “Developed a multi-day new employee orientation program that on boarded over 150 workers over six years and is still in use.”

A computer engineer shows how he contributed to the bottom line: “Drove $1.2 million revenue increase by deploying 200-plus software suites for company's leading product line.”

Someone in marketing demonstrates how she increased readership: “Helped grow subscriptions in regional territory from 175 to 249 in one year through two recruitment projects.”


6. Don’t include a list of references.

Cut "References available upon request" from your resume. References are usually requested after you have been called in for a face-to-face interview.  At that time it is appropriate to provide three to four references that can speak to your skillset and how it complements the position you are applying for.

Make sure that you have contacted your references prior to providing their contact information.   You will receive a stronger reference if you provide them with copies of your resume, cover letter and a copy of the job description.  Additionally, it is also helpful if you remind them of an achievement, accomplishment or success story that you thought they might be able to address if they receive a call.

Example:  A student to her professor, “I thought you would be a great reference because I had to do the group marketing project for your class.  Because we had to create a campaign using both traditional and social media you can attest to my knowledge level.  The position I’m applying for, requires social media experience.”

Great Resume’s Open Doors

A little effort on your part can go a long way in making your resume stand out from the rest.  Make those six seconds work for you.  Give the reader a clear roadmap that easily highlights accomplishments, skillsets, including baseline skills and tells a story of how you add value to the prospective employer.

Lastly, make sure you proof read and correct all errors.  You don’t want something simple to take away from the story you want the reader to focus on.  

About the Authors: 

Jenny Jones has Master's of Science in Mathematics and an MBA. Her writing stems from her research as a TAACCCT grant data analyst and her passion for empowering individuals to greater intellectual heights through life-long learning. 

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.

tipping point illustration

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Creating a “tipping point” towards positive change requires that you recognize need for change and then develop a plan of action to tip movement in a positive direction.

In our professional lives, in particular, we create tipping points unconsciously that usually move us in directions we do not want to go, but we have the power to consciously and positively change directions.

We all want to be thought of as more than competent in the workplace and in the classroom.  That said, our personal concept of competency may not parallel the definition of competency used by superiors, colleagues or those we supervise.  So, what can we do to try and ensure that our reality mirrors others’ reality of us?

The first key is recognizing that we all have blind spots; areas that others can see that we cannot.

A great explanation of this concept is the Joharis Window Model.  The Johari Window is a simple and useful tool for illustrating and improving self-awareness, and mutual understanding between individuals within a group. We can see some of its key concepts if we think about the following:

  • How do we measure how others see us or how we show up in their eyes?
  • Once we have identified areas that we want to change, how do we create a shift in a positive direction?

Change is defined as “the act or instance of making or becoming different.” Change happens when an object or idea is pushed forward until it reaches the tipping point.  Malcome Gladwell, in his bookTipping Point, talks about how little things can make a big difference. Gladwell defines a tipping point as "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point". The Tipping Point is the moment that a shift in momentum happens.

So, the “Tipping Point” is that moment when an idea or behavior spread like viruses do:  fast, with ease, and almost unconsciously by a group of people.  To consciously “make” this happen, one usually uses a combination of strategies, executed over a period of time that changes minds, alters ideas and secures votes. Getting to the point where you can consciously invite change to happen?

The first step to change is “Think Different Thoughts.”

Norman Vincent Peal said, “Change your thoughts and you change your world.”  The first step toward change is to believe that change will happen.  Our belief in the possible provides the foundation for building a plan of action.

I often tell students I coach, “First you think it - - - then you feel it.” 

Take a moment and test this concept.  Think about a difficult situation you recently encountered at school or on the job.  What are you feeling in your chest, stomach, head, neck and extremities?  Did you feel the physical signs of stress, anxiety, sadness or maybe even anger? Now, do the opposite and focus on something that happened in those environments that made you feel great.  Acknowledgment from manager and colleagues for a job well done, receiving an award, bonus or raise, or even securing a promotion. Can you feel the tension you created through the first exercise fading away? 

Change begins with believing that positive change will happen!

The second step to change is to, “Take a Different Action.”

As they say, madness is doing the same thing and expecting different results. Ponder this a moment to see how often you – indeed, we all! – have been a participant in this particular form of madness! If you are wanting something to be different, or wanting to create change, the change has to start with you.

Why is this important lesson for leaders?

First, recognizing your blind spots and having a willingness to receive feedback from others, has the potential of helping you learn about yourself and create a roadmap for success. Secondly, we shouldn’t underestimate the influence we can have on others and others can have on us.


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.