Cover Letters–Do They Matter?

The debate rages on as to whether cover letters are useful or a waste of time/effort/money. At a conference I attended in October, a panel of 4 hiring managers and recruiters gave a less-than-enthusiastic response when asked whether they read the cover letters that accompanied applicant resumes. If I remember correctly, one of them indicated that he did read them (at least part of the time), but I think the other panelists basically said they did not. On the other hand, I and many of my colleagues have seen our clients achieve a positive result from submitting a well-written cover letter with their resume. So…who reads cover letters, and is sending them a wasted effort?

Cover Letters–Who Reads Them?

It’s pretty well impossible for you to know ahead of time whether the person who receives your submission is going to read the cover letter. In the past, I’ve heard some managers say they always read the cover letter because it gives them another insight into the candidate, while other managers will say they read the cover letter if they like what they see on the resume–and still others will turn thumbs down on the whole idea of cover letters. In other words, the reactions are spread out all over the map! Unfortunately, that’s not particularly helpful to you as a job seeker.

My take on this is that it could be a good idea to assume someone will read the letter and send one with your resume for each job opportunity you’re really interested in pursuing. If your letter is well done, you won’t hurt your chances for consideration and might increase the odds in your favor. That’s worth making an effort to write a cover letter yourself or–if you’re paying a professional to create the letter–investing some money in it, as a potential aid to your career success.

5 Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Address and send it to “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Sir [or Madam]” or anything else that’s equally generic. Do your utmost to find out who should ideally receive the letter and direct it to him or her. After all, how much attention do you pay to mail you receive that’s addressed to “Occupant”?
  2. Ramble on about why you’re looking for a new job and what you’ve done over the last 10-15 years (possibly described in excruciating detail). Honestly, no one cares about all that but you–especially if it means reading a dense one-page or (heaven forbid) two-page cover letter!
  3. Put important information in the cover letter that isn’t in the resume and should be. Remember, we’re not even sure the recipient is going to read your letter, so why risk putting a critical piece of information only in there?
  4. Send a generic cover letter that doesn’t in some way link the needs of the employer with the value you can offer–the problems you can help solve, the opportunities you can generate (revenue, profit, competitive edge, etc.), and so on.
  5. Wrap up the letter with a general-wording paragraph that doesn’t indicate your interest in arranging an interview to discuss specific needs and your ability to meet them. The primary purpose of a cover letter is to ask for an interview.

Undoubtedly, these aren’t the only cover letter mistakes job seekers can make–and have made–but they can give you some clues as to what to avoid.

Good and Bad Cover Letters

Good cover letters can matter and are usually worth doing; bad cover letters are worse than no cover letter at all. Make sure you know the difference between the two!

2 Comments on “Cover Letters–Do They Matter?”

  1. Abe Wilson says:

    On the addressee of the cover letter…frankly, “Dear Hiring Manager”, “Dear Recruiter”, or “Dear Sir or Madam” should be sufficient. If I were doing the hiring I would prefer a generic respectful salutation. Jumping through hoops to find out my name wouldn’t impress me unless I were hiring your for your skills at tracking someone down. It doesn’t matter what the name of the person doing the hiring is. You, the job seeker, are going to have to impress the potential employer whether he or she is called “Mr. Prakash” or “Ms. Anderson”. I actually would rather get junk mail addressed to “Occupant” rather than to “Mr. So-and-so” (the solicitor has already irritated me with a sales pitch. Don’t compound the irritation by getting chummy). As an employer, I would rather potential hires didn’t presume a personal rapport until they demonstrated their skills. They can address me by name when I give it to them, over the phone or face to face conversation, assuming their resumes get their feet in the door.

    • Abe, I appreciate your sharing a different point of view. That’s what makes life interesting! I believe I understand the point you’re making; however, I also believe we might be talking about slightly different things. I certainly don’t recommend a phony-friendly approach to a potential employer/hiring manager, just as I don’t particularly appreciate it when someone calls me by my first name in a store or elsewhere, as if we were friends of long standing instead of having no prior connection. On the other hand, if I’m a hiring manager and an applicant takes the trouble to find out my name so he/she can address a communication to me as a real person instead of a title, I would appreciate the effort that person made–partly because most job seekers don’t bother to do it. To me, that’s not the same as presuming on a rapport that hasn’t yet been established.

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