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A High-Quality Cover Letter Is Still a Strong Differentiator


Today we begin a series excerpted from our new, free white paper, Cover Letter Reboot: A Crowdsourced Update of Traditional Cover-letter Advice for Today’s Job Search, which you can download here. If you prefer not to download, you can read the contents here. WhitePaperScreenshot.jpg Twenty years ago, my partner and I wrote one of the first cover-letter books on the market, and since then we’ve written countless articles on cover letters — as well as cover letters themselves. My views haven’t wavered much in those two decades on the guidelines we wrote about all those years ago. But recently, I’ve received a couple of condescending messages from readers that suggest my views are hopelessly out of date, especially my strong edict that a cover letter should be addressed to a specific, named individual. The people who wrote to me suggested that in these days of submitting resumes and cover letters through job boards, discovering the name of the hiring decision-maker to write to is nearly impossible, and that these employers neither want to be addressed personally nor followed up with after resume and cover-letter submission. So I wondered if this advice and other guidelines we’d espoused all these years were indeed antiquated. I conducted e-mail interviews with hiring decision-makers –crowdsourcing, if you will — to find out. The research was neither quantitative nor scientific but provides a meaningful snapshot of some key employer opinions. I also talked only with hiring decision-makers who read and value cover letters. Studies over the past several years suggest that somewhere between a third and half of hiring decision-makers do not read the letters. What follows are the crowdsourced hiring decision-maker opinions on cover-letter advice I’ve given over the years. Remember that cover letters are highly subjective, and you’d be hard-pressed to develop a cover letter that would please every employer. But these sentiments can guide your thinking toward some pretty darned effective letters: Although failing to include a cover letter is no longer the disqualifying factor it once was, submitting a high-quality cover letter with your resume can be a strong differentiator. If such a significant portion of the employer audience does not even read cover letters, should you always submit them with a resume? That’s a tricky question. Most of the decision-makers I talked to said they would probably not eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate for failing to submit a cover letter, even though these employers value cover letters and prefer to receive them. You should, however, always include a cover letter if:
  • The employer specifically requests that you do so. If a cover letter is requested, and you fail to submit one, you are showing you cannot follow instructions. “I tell people in my posting to include a cover letter about why this job is for them,” says Bonnie Zaben, COO at AC Lion, New York City, “and still I get resumes without cover letters (which I don’t read).”
  • Your targeted job requires strong writing, communication, persuasive, marketing, or sales skills. Did you notice that list encompasses a huge portion of jobs? Yup. I still advise including a cover letter in most situations because your letter can demonstrate the skills on that list. “Unless the resume itself is completely incredible or it’s from someone I know, [not including a cover letter is] an instant disqualification,” says Erin Cheyne, creative director of Cheyne Creative. “My company is marketing- and advertising-centric, so it’s especially important for job candidates to be able to sell themselves in this industry. If you don’t even try to market yourself, how can I tell if you’ll be able to work in marketing?” Similarly, Beth Smith, president of A-list Interviews, Boulder, CO, notes: “If I asked for a cover letter, it is usually because I need a writing sample. Most jobs require excellent written and oral communication skills, and I need to see how they articulate in a cover letter.”

You may want to consider company size in deciding whether to include a cover letter. “When I was with a huge corporation, I did not even read the cover letters,” says Grant DiCianni, president of Tapestry Productions Inc., a Christian fine-art reproduction gallery in Temecula, CA. Back then, DiCianni only skimmed the resume for the right qualifications because he had 300 applicants for each job. “Here at Tapestry,” he says, “the person is more important then their qualifications, so I look for the cover letter and resume to give me a sense of a potential hire’s ability to cogently and succinctly communicate.” And, as David Shelton, vice president for operations for Medical Advocacy Services for Healthcare (The MASH Program), Fort Worth, TX, points out, “Why wouldn’t an applicant include a cover letter? It’s a great way to address your skills and how they match to the opportunity; it demonstrates strong writing skills and, if done correctly, it allows your resume to be more memorable.” “A well-prepared cover letter that describes how the applicant feels he or she is a good fit for the position will absolutely help that applicant stand out from the crowd,” notes Adam S. Toporek of IntenseFence Management Solutions. A cover letter certainly won’t hurt your application — unless it’s error laden and of poor quality. A cover letter can also miss the opportunity to show off skills integral to the targeted job, as Sheri Graciano learned. “Recently I was recruiting for a marketing position,” recalls Graciano, who is human-resource manager for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “People who work in marketing are supposed to be creative, and we wanted to try to find the cream of the crop in terms of creative marketers. I asked applicants to submit ‘the most creative cover letter they could muster.’ Sadly, more than 85 percent of the submissions were standard, run-of-the-mill cover letters without an ounce of creativity included.” So, if you prepare a cover letter, make it your best and most careful effort.

“In the old days, not having a cover letter made you stand out from the crowd; today, having a cover letter, makes you stand out from the crowd,” Torporek observes.

If you choose not to include a cover letter, you must ensure that your resume can stand on its own.

Let me also add that the significant portion of employers who hold anti-cover-letter sentiments could make things a lot easier for job-seekers if they simply specified in their job postings that they do not want a cover letter. See also the other parts of the white paper/Cover Letter Reboot package: Cover Letter Wish List: Hiring Decision-Makers Reveal What They Want to See in Cover Letters, Hiring Decision-Makers Cite Top Cover-Letter Mistakes that Disqualify Job-Seekers, and Cover Letters That Wowed: Hiring Decision-Makers Describe Winning Cover Letters.