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!


Cover Letters versus E-Notes

Some things get super-sized, like fast-food portions. Others get minimized…like cover letters? Just when I thought I knew everything there was to know about writing cover letters (not really), I started seeing references to e-notes. Apparently, we now have to start thinking in terms of the old quote about “less is more” with regard to cover letters. So, hello, e-notes!

Difference between a Cover Letter and an E-Note

As I understand it (I’ve just started researching this), an e-note could be compared to a cover letter on a diet. It needs to fit comfortably into the body of an e-mail message, ideally short enough to be read without scrolling down. Typically, it might have 6-7 paragraphs of 2-3 lines each, sometimes only one line. The first paragraph should grab the right kind of attention, preferably with a clear reference to something the reader is likely to care about or at least a concise statement of your purpose in sending the message. You can use an e-note to reach out to your network, to contact recruiters and, presumably, to pursue opportunities directly with hiring managers. The e-note also needs a strong and clear subject line if you hope to have recipients actually read it.

Cover letters have normally been a full page or close to it–maybe as few as 3 paragraphs but more likely as many as 5 or 6, with each paragraph running from possibly a couple of lines to as many as 5 lines. The cover letter might or might not contain a short bulleted list. It also might or might not have a subject line, which often would simply be the title of the position being sought (although that’s not a particularly creative approach, it is direct). We know that not everyone reads the cover letter that comes with your resume, although a good letter has still been considered important because it allows you to reinforce the impression you hope your resume is making and also lets you do some customizing.

Are Cover Letters Doomed in Favor of E-Notes?

While it might be premature to pronounce cover letters a thing of the past, it’s hard to ignore an emerging trend toward brevity, which has also had some impact on resumes in recent years (possibly accelerated by devices such as smart phones and tablets). That job search trend suggests an e-note might increasingly be the communication tool of choice, particularly when so many of our communications travel electronically. You can also hope that the e-note will actually get read before the recipient opens the attached resume–it might be a little harder to ignore than a separate cover letter and also more encouraging for people to read, simply because it’s short. That’s if–and it’s a big IF–you craft your e-note thoughtfully and judiciously to make every word count as much as possible.

Whether you create a cover letter or an e-note to send with your resume, you still need to do your homework about the position you’re pursuing and the company that’s hiring for it. In fact, it might be even more important to do this with an e-note, since you’ll have to choose wisely to make the best use of the space available. Think of it this way: If you had to pay $5 for each word you used, would you weigh your choices carefully? I’m betting you would!

Cover Letters–Not Your Life Story

Some job seekers start to write a cover letter and don’t seem to know when to stop–or how to focus, for that matter. If that description fits you, I suggest you think seriously about what it is that you want and need your cover letter to accomplish. If it’s to bore the reader (employer) to tears or motivate him/her to turn the letter into a paper airplane, no problem. Your over-long, poorly focused cover letter will do the trick nicely. On the other hand, if the letter needs to reinforce the strong value message hopefully communicated in your resume, you’ll have to do a lot better than that.

Your Core Cover Letter Message

This is no secret. I’ve written about it before. But you might be surprised at how many people don’t “get” it. You cannot count on the employer reading every wonderful word you’ve crammed into your cover letter, no matter how interesting or important you think all the information is. You will have to decide–sooner rather than later–what the letter needs to achieve and make sure it aims for that. Even your aunt Edna (or whatever your family equivalent is) probably wouldn’t read eight 6-line paragraphs on a page that has half-inch margins all around, even if you’re her favorite relative. It’s a certainty that no employer is going to.

When a banquet speaker starts out by saying something like, “My career began with a discovery in kindergarten that…,” attendees know they’re in for a sleep-inducing evening. However, short of being really rude and walking out in the middle, they’re stuck–they’re a captive audience. The employers you will be targeting in your job search don’t have the same restriction. They can essentially leave whenever they want, by putting your letter and resume in the stack that winds up in or near the wastebasket. Your cover letter needs to do the business-like equivalent of shouting, “I have something to say that will make you successful (competitive, market-leading, and so on)” and then prove it.

Cover Letter Temptations to Resist

For the most part, basic details that are already appropriately presented in the resume don’t need to be restated in the cover letter. As an example, say you’ve noted in your resume that you obtained a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Stanford University in 2009. You don’t need a line or two in the cover letter that tells the reader essentially the same thing. He or she also doesn’t want to read a list (even limited) of what your current and most recent jobs were and at what company. Again, the resume should already contain that information and more.

Providing a list of why you left your last four jobs also doesn’t enhance your cover letter. At least, not unless you can turn it to good account on your behalf. If, for instance, those employers were each acquired by another company, you might lightly note that you had accepted positions at companies that you felt showed a lot of promise–so much so that they were bought by other companies interested in growing–and, unfortunately, the typical process of trimming duplicate staff then came into play.

The point? As always, speak to the prospective employer’s enlightened self-interest, but keep it succinct, focused and as loaded with your unique value message as you can reasonably manage.

Cover Letter Trends & Tips

As promised in my previous post, this one will touch on cover letter trends and tips you might find useful. Some of the information–and any quotes–come from the Career Thought Leaders 2011 Career Brainstorming Day white paper mentioned previously. The idea is to get you thinking about cover letter issues that are fairly new or emerging as possible trends.

Debate About Cover Letters–Are They Read?

From the brainstorming sessions and from other reading I’ve done, it’s clear there’s far from a consensus on whether or not cover letters get read and, if so, by whom. One source said that “easily 50% of hiring decision-makers no longer read cover letters–a stark change from even a few years ago. Why? Decision-makers are very busy, and the cover letter no longer generates the same compelling interest as does the resume.” On the other hand, some people claim that corporate recruiters almost never read cover letters while hiring managers do.

So whom do you believe? My opinion is that unless you see a clear reason not to provide a cover letter with your resume, a well-written letter can’t hurt and might help strengthen your candidacy. If, for example, you have someone inside the company hand-carrying your resume to the hiring manager, a cover letter probably isn’t necessary. However, if you don’t have someone and you want to give yourself every possible advantage against the competition, sending a well-thought-out cover letter might be the factor that tips the scales in your favor–not to land you the job but to help you secure an interview.

If you’re submitting via email, as is often the case these days, you might create a really good email cover note rather than a more formal letter. Just don’t toss one together as if it didn’t matter, which is all too easy for people to do with email. Put as much care into it as you would a traditional cover letter.

Cover Letters: What’s New and Next

We sometimes use what’s called pull quotes (brief testimonials) in resumes to distinguish the individual from his/her competition and drive a key point home to employers. One possible trend is to adapt this technique to cover letters. Why? “Testimonials added to cover letters provide a strong third-party endorsement.” If you’re wondering where you can get a good quote to use, take a look at your LinkedIn recommendations. (You do have some, don’t you?) One of them might add impact and value to your cover letter.

Because so much communication is done electronically now, you might try something that seems a bit archaic but is being used effectively by some job seekers: Create a traditional paper cover letter and send it by postal mail (inelegantly referred to by some as “snail mail”). You might even try hand-addressing the envelope, so it doesn’t look as if it came from a computer that was spitting out hundreds of them. “The sheer novelty of the approach may draw positive attention.”

Essential Cover Letter Content

If you do nothing else in your cover letter, it’s essential that you speak to the self-interest of the employer–how you can help the company succeed. If you don’t do that, the rest won’t matter.

Soft Skills versus Hard Skills

For years, resume writers and career coaches have been telling clients they need to focus on hard skills (specific professional competencies, for example) rather than soft skills (team player, good communicator and so on). The point has always been that although soft skills aren’t unimportant as part of your job search value, employers don’t search for them. Now someone is trying to get us all confused!

Soft Skills Gaining in Value?

Stock Exchange Using Soft-skills Screen” is the title of an article by Todd Raphael that I found via In it, Raphael explains that the New York Stock Exchange–not exactly small potatoes as an employer–will use a new hiring tool from a brand-new company called EmployInsight. The concept involves a team with a job opening for which they build a profile of what they want, where the person will be located, what the nature of the job is, and so on. What are some of the soft skills the profile will measure? It’s things like resilience, grit and emotional intelligence.

Raphael goes on to note that the team then has candidates fill out a list of their own soft skills, which can be compared in order for the employer to get a ranked list of the best match(es). “The NYSE will likely use it as a ‘first-step’ tool in screening to winnow down an initial pool. Other organizations perhaps will use it as a later step, such as after pre-screening and before an interview.”

What Does This Mean to You and Your Job Search?

This is one of my favorite questions to ask. In other words, what’s in it for you or why should you care? The answer seems pretty clear to me. If stuff like this is coming down the pike now–and it obviously is–you as a job seeker or as the manager of your career can’t afford to ignore or overlook it. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that you toss out all those hard skills you’ve worked so hard to acquire and to share with potential employers. However, it appears that you also can’t focus almost exclusively on them any more.

In the interests of resume conciseness, this development is probably going to present some challenges. One possible avenue for encompassing both soft and hard skills is to make sure your cover letter incorporates some of the former; where practical, the resume itself might also need to include a few of the most strongly indicated soft skills. Hint: Scan those job postings carefully before you submit. Ideally, get some inside scoop from people who work at the company on which aspects are weighted most heavily.

Avoid the Resume “Black Hole” Trap

If your resume looks as if it could have come from 20 years ago or it just hasn’t been put together carefully–with good attention to what your targeted employers are probably looking for–it most likely will end up in the resume “black hole” trap. The same goes for submitting it to employers without doing any research beforehand to see if your background makes sense for the company. Yet another black hole mistake is distributing your resume with a generic cover letter that does little, if anything, to give the employers a reason to read it OR the resume.

What is the resume “black hole” trap?

We all know that in science, a black hole basically swallows everything that comes close enough to be drawn into it–and doesn’t let anything escape back out again. When you rely on resume writing that doesn’t do justice to your experience and your potential value to employers, doesn’t show that you are not only living but working in the 21st century, and so on, you are aiming your resume right at that black hole as it applies to the job search process. You will be submitting your poorly thought-out resume to employers who will, at best, dump it straight into their vast and growing database; at worst, the resume won’t even make it into that location. What you almost certainly won’t get is anything in the way of a return trip–i.e., a meaningful response or reaction from the employer.

How to avoid the resume “black hole” trap

While there’s no 100% guaranteed process–no foolproof steps you can take–you can certainly increase your chances of not getting swallowed. In some of my previous posts, I’ve mentioned a few of the actions you can and should take. One I might not have mentioned is to give employers an indication that you are current on technology related to the overall category of social media. If, for example, you have a good LinkedIn profile, consider including the link to your profile in the contact information at the top of your resume. The same goes for places like Twitter–but DO be careful that whatever content you already have in those places is professionally presented or at least neutral in nature (e.g., no wild party stories or photos!). Otherwise, you might just help your resume get into the black hole faster!

Make your cover letter a strong resume add-on

I hope no one these days sends a cover letter that says, in essence, “here’s my resume; I hope you like it”! A professional cover letter is not the same as a file transmittal sheet. It must quickly and clearly indicate to the reader that you are a promising candidate for the company’s open position and have substantial value to offer. While it shouldn’t just repeat information verbatim from the resume, it can and sometimes should reference and expand on items that are in that document. Above all, it should help encourage readers to give thoughtful consideration to your resume by distinguishing you from the multiple other candidates they’ll be seeing.

P.S. Have you updated your resume lately? If not, the start of a new year is a good time to do that! What have you done since the last time that isn’t in there and should be?

Cover Letters That Get Attention

Let’s be clear up-front about this. I do not mean you should write a cover letter that makes the hiring manager or other reader leap up from his/her chair and keel over from shock! Getting employers’ attention is critical, but it needs to be the right kind of attention. In other words, it has to generate the type of response you need—most importantly, a phone call that can lead to an interview. Always, always keep that goal in mind when writing and sending cover letters to potential employers.

What Works in Cover Letters and What Doesn’t

What works? Maybe there’s no magic bullet you can shoot and hit the target with your cover letter every time, but much of what works comes from what ought to be common sense (but isn’t as common as it should be). Here are just a few cover letter tips to consider:

  • Focus on the company. It’s not all about you. Yes, you’re the one sending the letter and hoping to land a job interview; but it’s the employer who will be reading the letter and looking for potential value for his/her company. Unless you engage what I call the “enlightened self-interest” of the employer, your submission can quickly become history—without ever gaining an interview.
  • Go beyond the generic, feel-good-but-insubstantial approach. If the cover letter sounds like a blanket approach to your job search (something you are probably sending to multiple companies), it will almost certainly go unread. Cover letters are the perfect opportunity to customize your submissions and help you “come alive” to employers; don’t waste that opportunity!
  • Pair genuine enthusiasm with knowledge about the company and what it does. It’s important for the company to know you really want to work for it (avoiding the “I just want a job, any job” mentality). In order to write an effective cover letter, you have to know and be able to communicate why you particularly want to work for that company—and why they should care.

What doesn’t work? In a way, it’s kind of the flip side of the tips mentioned above, but other issues can hurt your chances as well.

  • A long-winded, essentially boring cover letter can easily torpedo your chances. Busy hiring managers or HR staffers most likely won’t even bother to look at it. If you were in their place, you probably wouldn’t either!
  • Straight repetition of information from your resume doesn’t lead to a strong cover letter. It’s not that you can never reference items from the resume, but it needs to be done in a way that clearly adds value—makes points for you in the reader’s mind.
  • Some people don’t read cover letters. Period. You’re not going to know that ahead of time, though, so don’t make the assumption that your letter won’t get read and decide (a) not to bother with a cover letter at all or (b) throw together something quickly, just to get the resume out the door. Give the letter your best shot; otherwise, you might as well forget it. If you can’t create a compelling cover letter, you can pretty much count on having it ignored.

If a company requests a cover letter, you should definitely send one—and make it a great one! But even if they don’t ask, you can still send the letter. For any job you’re strongly interested in, the cover letter represents one more chance for you to get the kind of attention you’re after. Take advantage of that opportunity!