“Do I need a cover letter?”
I’m often asked this question by job candidates, usually with the hope that the answer will be no. Cover letter writing can be an arduous and time-consuming part of the application process, especially if that cover letter never gets read.
So most job seekers are disheartened when I tell them to add a cover letter, even if one isn’t requested. According to the Saddleback College Resume Survey, 53 percent of employers required a resume, while 30 percent had no preference as to whether you had a cover letter or not. Since you have no way of knowing whether a cover letter is desired (unless the application process requires one), it is best to err on the side of caution and write one. After, all, if the employer doesn’t want one, they can always just ignore it, but if they want one and don’t see it, you may not get an interview.
Not surprisingly, the same survey found that 75 percent of employers wanted a cover letter that was no more than half a page and the shorter the better. This result confirms my suspicion that the vast majority of cover letters either go unread, or are merely skimmed. Employers are less interested in what your cover letter says, and more interested in the fact that you took the time and effort to put one together.
At one point in my career, I was interested in relocating. I put the reasons why in my cover letter. Yet time and again, I was asked by interviewers, “Why are you looking to move?” Often, they didn’t even have my cover letter in front of them, just the resume.
Still, if you are going to write a cover letter, you should write the best one possible. Being too generic is almost as bad as not having one at all, since it tells the employer you don’t care. Here are some steps to writing a concise yet informative cover letter.
1) If you can, address the letter to an actual person. You may need to reach out to the employer to get this name, and in larger organizations, it may not be possible. If you can’t get a name, addressing it to “Dear Hiring Manager” is always a safe bet.
2) In the introduction, include the job you are applying for and where you heard about it. Follow this with a statement about why you think you are well suited for the position. This may include your experience, skills, education, etc. Last, include the reason why you want to work for the organization. Don’t be shy about praising the organization. Flattery will get you everywhere.
Include anything not covered in the resume that you feel they should know. For instance, if you had a gap in work history, explain why. Knowing that you were a stay at home parent or had returned to school will go a long way in alleviating any concerns.
3) In the body of the letter, select two or three key items from the job posting and speak specifically as to why you meet these qualifications. For instance, if they want someone with project management experience, add a sentence about a successful project you led and the results. Make sure this is in your resume as well, just in case the employer doesn’t read the cover letter.
4) Conclude the letter with a request to discuss the position further. Make sure you mention the best ways to reach you and thank them for their consideration.
5) As always, watch for proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. Also, ifyou are basing the cover letter off one you wrote for another position, make sure to change the organization name and other details. You would be surprised at how many cover letters are receive addressed to a person who doesn’t even work for us or with another company’s name.
6) Don’t get too personal. Employers don’t care, and don’t want to know, how many children you have or that you enjoy woodworking. Only reference personal information if it is relevant to the job.
7) Some people try to use humor to get the employer’s attention. This can work if you are trying to get a job in an area that requires creativity. But if you are applying for a job as a CPA or attorney, this could backfire if you come off as not serious enough. When it doubt, keep the tone professional.
Finally, don’t spend too much time on a cover letter. I’ve witnessed job searches spend days crafting the perfect sentences, choosing just the right words, agonizing over every detail. Remember, the employer may only spend a few seconds skimming that letter you spent hours writing. The precious time you have for job hunting can be much better spent.