Cover letters are one of those places in the job search where the old school way of doing things has been slow to give way, and very few people receive any benefit (or additional interview invites) from spending the time to create one. In previous blogs, Boly:Welch has advocated for eschewing the use of cover letters based on the argument that they are typically ignored by hiring managers and recruiters. We’re going to complicate the conversation a little bit, and continue the theme that the importance of a cover letter really depends on context and that the job search is a highly individualized beast.
Q: Should I Have a Cover Letter at All?
It’s true that many recruiters and hiring managers ignore cover letters completely. An informal office poll had a variety of responses:
“I always look at them, but after the resume. If the resume is a pass, I don’t go to the cover letter.”
“If it’s a standard generic letter with some CRTL+H replacing names, it tells me the candidate doesn’t understand the job search. They think it’s just something they have to do. Definitely doesn’t help with a first impression.”
“When I was a hiring manager for a ~cool~ company, we’d get 500+ applications for every posting. I always looked at the cover letter to see if the person was even addressing the specific job versus how ~cool~ the company was. I used it to screen-out, not screen-in.”
“Well, I always do.”
“Yep. I want to get a sense of their personality and written communication skills.”
“I look at them if I’m on the fence, or have questions about the resume. Gaps, location, why a candidate is applying for this particular job.”
So, there you have it: an unscientific study on whether someone is even looking at your cover letter. The majority consensus was that cover letters can help in some situations, but only if you’re using them in the right way. Otherwise, they might be the fastest way to get screened out.
Q: If I Have One, Where Can (And Should) I Send It?
When a candidate asks about whether they should send in a cover letter, we typically tell them not to bother unless it matters in the context. If the application asks for one, definitely follow the instructions. If it doesn’t, only write one if you know enough about the role or company to make it specific. For Boly:Welch, since candidates are being considered for multiple roles, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, unless it can illuminate something in somebody’s background that isn’t reflected in their resume.
Our recruiters had even stronger opinions about how to present a cover letter for best effect. Pretty consistent themes across our office:
- For email applications, if you decide against a cover letter, try not to send your resume in without any kind of note. Feel free to write a paragraph or two to explain anything you feel you need to explain (relocation, gaps, experience equivalents) or to simply say hello and provide preferred contact information. Don’t paste a copy of your cover letter in this section if you’re already attaching it as a separate document.
- If you are emailing your application and decide to use a cover letter, some recruiters like to see the cover letter in the actual body of the email (so you can woo them right out of the gates), but some insist they’d rather have it as an attachment. There’s not a hard and fast rule on this one — go with your gut. Do not save your cover letter as the first page of a .pdf resume. It’s not a good first impression for the majority of recruiters.
- If you’re required to submit your cover letter through an applicant tracking system (ATS), make sure you (1) follow their instructions and (2) take the time to make it count. “A generic cover letter is worse than no letter at all,” says one Boly:Welch recruiter. And yes, we receive the generic, cliché-ridden letter from a majority of applicants who send them, which is part of the reason they are so ineffective.
Q: How Do I Make It Count?
The number one goal for any materials you’re submitting to a role should be to get you past the role’s gatekeepers and onto the short list of applicants who are invited to interview for a role. That’s why making a cover letter count is so important — you have limited time and space to get past a gatekeeper, so you have to use it wisely. Done well, a cover letter gives you a chance to show you’re not just qualified for the role, but the most qualified person for the role.
Your cover letter should explain things your resume doesn’t contain about your personality, background, and fit for the role. Don’t regurgitate points from your resume. If you find yourself using the phrase, “My experience at XXX Company makes me…” please stop and delete that sentence. Even in explaining your background, your focus should be on why your experience is the best fit for this particular role and company. It’s also a place to hint that you’re likeable and likely to fit in at the company should they decide to hire you.
Here are our top 3 tips for making it count:
- Do the Research: Start off by asking, “What, specifically, would I bring to this company in this role?” Are you a culture fit? What’s required? Skills that are mentioned first, or more than once, are likely important aspects of the role. What are the challenges and problems you can solve? What information can you find that would wow the hiring manager in an interview? Once you know how to situate yourself as the best fit for the role, you should also try to ensure your letter gets read. Research contact information for the recruiter, HR person, or hiring manager. Pick a catchy subject line that spells out what the email is about (e.g. “Project Coordinator with Experience in Creative Agency – Interested”) or, if you have an “in” with someone at the organization, “Referral of Joe McPerson—Staff Accountant Role”) and position yourself at the top of the pile.
- Make it Engaging: Start off with a bang, catching your reader’s interest. The best cover letters start in the middle of a story (“Halfway through the interview, I realized I was sitting on the wrong side of the hiring table”), with an eye-catching statement (e.g. “I am always looking to add value to an organization because it’s my passion to make systems easier, better, faster, and smarter“), or an offer of what you could do for the company. Using less formal language – still being professional and clear – can show your off your personality a little. Quantifying successes by using numbers and explaining the context of your role and impact is crucial. Lastly, stories are more memorable than generics — the more specific and interesting you can make something, the better. And always, keep it short — one page or much less!
- Make it Personalized: We want to reemphasize that the goal isn’t to show that you are interested or qualified for the job: it’s to make very clear that you’re more qualified than all of the other applicants. The hiring manager is going to be looking for ways to disqualify your application, so no typos, generic addresses, or a tone that is so non-specific it reeks of find-replace. It may sound like you’re being undeservedly discounted for these shortcuts, but when a hiring manager see these things, they read it as “I didn’t take any time on this, and don’t really care about working here.” Make each cover letter specifically for the role to show you are an amazing fit, not just for the role, but the company.