Are you covered by your cover letter?

I just read an article from Bloomberg that claimed just 18 percent of employers care about cover letters. Well I’ve received literally thousands of resumes and cover letters as a corporate recruiter, and let me tell you, they do matter. In each batch of applicant submissions, there was always one person’s cover letter that stood out from the rest. That’s the person whose resume rises to the top of the pile.

The 18 percent of employers likely to expect a cover letter is skewed toward the more experienced (ahem, older) people. But they are the ones in the best positions to make hiring decisions. And while 18 percent may sound small, you don’t want to lose that 18 percent, do you? Writing a personalized cover letter shows some time investment on your part. If you took the extra time, maybe the reader will give you the benefit of their time, too.

So don’t shortchange yourself by skipping the cover letter. But don’t write a hasty letter either. Here’s how to write one that floats to the top in a sea of lazy letters:

  • Typos will kill you, but that’s true in anything. Any form of communication that is done well is received with appreciation and stands out in a world where people are rushed and not careful. Spellcheck alone isn’t enough. Have someone read your cover letter carefully before you lick the stamp.
  • Speaking of stamps: Based on the age and experience of your audience, decide if an email or written correspondence is best. Sometimes, the best way to get the attention of an over-emailed executive is through snail mail. Call their assistant or someone else who would know what they prefer. It pays to pay attention to a person’s preferred way to communicate once on the job, so practice good form now.
  • Provide new information that is an attention grabber. Make it something interpretive that a resume can’t cover. A resume is a factual account of what you have done, so on your cover letter offer something your audience wouldn’t know just from your resume. Some examples:
    • Why would your advice as a candidate be particularly valuable to the company? Do enough Googling to know something in your audience’s background that resonates with you. Share a similar experience in your letter.
    • Be very, very specific about what makes you a compelling candidate.
    • How long have you been a customer of their company, and what experience made you want to work there?
  • Make a call to action or compelling business case.
    • If someone referred you or you have another logical connection, start with that warm lead and drop names. “John Doe suggested I write because we worked together at XYZ, now a substantial supplier to your company. He thought I might be helpful given your procurement goals.”
    • Make yourself available for serious follow-up. “I’ll be in your city three days at the end of next week. Would you spare 15 minutes to give me some advice?”
    • “I met you at the conference Friday, and I appreciate your invitation to reach out for coffee. Will you suggest a day and time?”
  • Ask yourself if someone else could’ve written the same thing. If the answer is yes, scrap your letter and start over with something that only you could say. A good cover letter, like a good interview answer, has some unique statement no one else is likely to make. Be yourself, not what you think your potential employer wants you to be.

For example, if I were looking for a job tomorrow, I would try to land in places where I have a real story. If you can’t come up with something, the reader certainly won’t find it interesting either. I could get the attention of people in the auto industry or food industry—seemingly very different industries—with factual evidence of my passion for their business:

  • “I’m on my sixth Audi and have driven them more than 200,000 miles. I am confident I can relate to your business and entice other people to want to work at Audi USA.” Don’t you want me to buy my seventh car? Chances are you or someone in your company will at least respond.
  • “I scrambled my first batch of eggs with all the traditional sides for my family when I was five years old. I’ve been in love ever since with good food as part of a social experience that brings people together. Your brands appeal to me for several reasons, and I’d love to share those with you.” Aren’t you a little curious what I would share?
  • Make it short. You are trying to make someone read that other piece of paper called a resume, so don’t add to the burden by making them read more than 10-12 sentences total. A few careful words can show that you took the time to be succinct and that you are skilled at choosing words with high impact and relevance.
    Remember the wisdom most often attributed to the wise Winston Churchill: “If I’d had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

The complete Bloomberg article by Sarah Grant, “The Case Against Cover Letters,” is located here.

Let me know what you think in the comments below. For those hiring employees, do you care about cover letters? Job seekers, are you still writing them?

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