Do you really need a cover letter?

By Andrew Seaman

You likely have parts of a job search that you enjoy, such as networking, but you also probably dislike many parts of the process. If we were placing bets on it, I would bet that cover letters fall into the latter category. Very few people have ever told me they enjoy writing cover letters.

Perhaps one of the worst aspects of writing cover letters is the fact that many people argue over their value. A quick Google search will reveal many results from people claiming cover letters are read by only a sliver of recruiters and hiring managers. Then, you’ll find plenty of results from people saying the letters can give job seekers an edge among a sea of other applicants.

The truth is that some recruiters and hiring managers read cover letters, but some flip right to your resume. You likely don’t know which approach the people hiring for the position you want will take. As a result, you should take the time to write a cover letter whenever possible. 

“I think the cover letter can be really lucrative to someone who really wants to get their foot in the door at a target company or for a position they’ve been gunning for,” said Wendi Weiner, who is a personal branding and career expert at The Writing Guru.

The changing face of cover letters

The good news is that cover letters keep evolving with the hiring process. The evolution of cover letters makes the process of writing one much more palatable — especially if you’re conducting a strategic job search that’s focused on the quality of applications you submit instead of the quantity.

A cover letter becomes an email message if you’re building relationships and directly reaching a position’s recruiter or hiring manager, for example.

Similarly, a friend of mine used what I call a backdoor cover letter. Essentially, she wrote an email that looked similar to a cover letter to a connection who worked at one of her target companies. The connection then forwarded the email, with her resume attached, to the hiring manager of an open position with a brief endorsement. 

In both of the above cases, the cover letter had morphed from a stuffy formal letter attached to an application to a more conversational or natural communication.

What’s the purpose of a cover letter?

Even though the cover letter has evolved over the years, the purpose is still generally the same as it was before they were even commonly used in the hiring process.

A look at the history of the cover letter published seven years ago in The Atlantic highlights the use of the term in a 1936 edition of the Wall Street Journal. A “cover letter” in the world of finance during that time would accompany raw financial data. The letter was meant to offer a more complete picture of what the data represented.

Likewise, you can use your cover letter to go beyond what’s on your resume or CV. 

“I think the cover letter is kind of like the value-add,” Weiner of The Writing Guru told me.

The nuts and bolts of a cover letter

For people struggling to write a cover letter, Weiner told me it doesn’t have to be very long. In fact, she recommends that you stick to about 250 words, which should give you enough characters to get your point across without boring the recruiter or hiring manager on the other side. While that may not seem like a lot of words, the cover letter I submitted to LinkedIn in 2018 was about 175 words and three paragraphs.

Weiner said to start off the letter by explaining why you’re pursuing the position.

As for the rest of the letter, you’ll want to align your past successes with the needs of the potential employer.

“What you want to do is pick three things that would define your career success to lead them to want them to read your resume,” said Weiner.

“You’re setting your groundwork to show how you can help the company progress in its goals and objectives,” she said. “What the cover letter is doing is showcasing your expertise but it also shows how well you communicate.”

You don’t have to start from scratch each time

The good news is that Weiner said you can have a main cover letter that you change for each employer. Having a main cover letter can help reduce the risks of grammatical errors and some other issues that may arise while writing a fresh document each time. 

Regardless, you must proofread each cover letter before submitting it or sending it to potential employers. 

“Most people send the same cover letter and sometimes they forget to change the company and titles.”

Weiner added that it’s also a good idea to go the extra mile and address the letter to the hiring manager — if possible. One suggestion she had was to see if the job posting says who the position reports to within the company. Then, you can address the letter to the person who holds that position within the organization.

“You don’t want to make it seem like it’s a cookie-cutter cover letter that you’re sending to the other 20 companies that you’re applying to.”

She added that the importance of cover letters is likely increasing since so many people are looking for work right now.

“If you want to stand out among the other applicants, you may need to write out a well-crafted cover letter that showcases why you’re different than the other applicants,” she said. “My rule was always to send a personalized cover letter for each role I was applying to. I think it’s a good rule of thumb to use a cover letter each time you apply.”

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