the point of a cover letter

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I regularly see job applicants miss out on one of the most effective ways to make their application stand out: the cover letter.

First, I’m continually surprised by how many people don’t submit a cover letter at all, despite the fact that our ads and online job application instructions explicitly request them. I generally assume these applicants are just resume-bombing, applying to such a wide range of jobs that they can’t possibly tailor their application to each job. I don’t want these applicants; not only are they ignoring instructions in their very first contact with me, but I want applicants who are interested in this job, not a job.

Then there are the people who do submit a cover letter but who use it simply to summarize the resume that follows. With such limited initial contact, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you squander a page just regurgitating the contents of the other pages.

A cover letter is where you make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what’s in your resume. The first thing you want to do is tailor it to the specific job you’re applying for and, if possible, the specific company. Yes, it takes a lot longer than sending out the same form letter over and over, but I can promise you, a well-written cover letter that’s obviously individualized to my specific opening is going to open doors even when your resume alone might not have. These account for such a tiny fraction of applications — maybe 3% at most — that you’ll stand out and immediately go to the top of my pile. And I’ll give you an extra look, even if your resume isn’t stellar.

So what does it mean to individualize the cover letter? Here are some ways to do it:

* Tell me why you want this particular job. What grabbed you about the job description or the company itself? Why would you prefer this job over others out there?

* If you’re not a perfect match with the qualifications listed in the ad, acknowledge it and tell me why you’d do a good job anyway.

* Stay away from hyperbole. I hate cover letter statements like, “You won’t find a candidate better qualified than me.” It’s usually not true when people say that, but more importantly, it reeks of ego. I don’t want to feel like you’re trying to sell me on you; from my side, the hiring process is about an honest assessment of whether you’re a good match (because I don’t want to have to fire you later). Hyperbole just gets in the way.

* If something makes you especially well-suited for the job aside from your resume, the cover letter is the place to mention it. Maybe the position requires an inordinate degree of meticulousness and you constantly get teased for being anal retentive about details. Great! Mention it or I won’t know.

* If you know you’re overqualified but you don’t mind, say so in your cover letter. Otherwise I’ll figure that you don’t understand the nature of the position and won’t want to waste my time or yours.

{ 35 comments… read them below }

  1. Jim

    Funny how everyone insist you always need a cover letter. Just yesterday I saw one ad that read, no cover letters requested. Short statement note only, submission of cover letter will mean your application will be ignored. Things change all the time. Yet the always write a cover letter advice has been around forever. Listen to instructions first, sometimes their trying to determine if you have even read the ad.

  2. Shannon

    You say that you want applicants interested in “this job and not a job.” That’s easier coming from you because you are already employed. In a recession time, the fact is that people are looking for a job. They can’t put all of their eggs in one basket; it’s not a good thing to do. I completely understand tailoring the letter to the company, but I feel like HR departments look down on many applicants if they don’t pucker up and are not 200% perfect. The extra is unneeded.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s not about wanting *only* this job. It’s about showing a specific interest in this position, as opposed to seeming like you don’t have any special/specific interest in it.

  3. kate

    Helpful–thanks! Any advice to the applicants who are feeling perpetually under-qualified but desperate for the job? For instance, the company is looking for someone with a few years of experience, and I only have one year…Is a cover letter a good place for an applicant to mention how they could compensate for a shortcoming? Or does doing so send a different message..?

  4. Anonymous

    How do you know what the job really is until you talk to someone about it, and more so, begin doing it. Most job descriptions are vague at best, at worst they over complicate the job by trying to use big fancy words to describe what the applicant must be able to do. Go read the job description for a fast food cashier. I can’t write a cover letter saying how qualified I am prior to fully understanding the job, and I have yet to see a job description that really explains what the job entails. The truth is, job hunting is essentially a exercise in $&it talking. From the resume, to the cover letter, to the interview, it’s all about how good you can make yourself SOUND, which may or may not signify ones actual abilities.

  5. IT Professional

    Any company that makes a cover a pre-requisite for employment is a company or manager that I probably do not want to work for. It’s a moronic requirement and tells me the manager is more concerned with the process than the outcome. I’m an accomplished professional with severel high-level certifications, if you’re too lazy to read a CV and see that information than Im sure we won’t get along in the workplace. If you’re ignorant enough to think applicants are only interested in *this* job then you really don’t understand anything about your employees. No job is ideal and every one represents some level of compromise except in very rare circumstances. It’s an arrogance on the part of hiring managers to demand this waste of time. I’ve been in the position to hire people and I do so based on their CV and personal interviews. It takes no more than 5 minutes, usually less, to read a CV and sort out if an applicant is basically qualified for the position. How bloody hard is that? In this way I am confident that I found the most qualified applicants and not necessarily the best bullshit artists. It’s strange how management looks at the surface and not the substance so often.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No one thinks candidates are only interested in this one job, and a cover letter doesn’t need to imply that. But yes, good hiring managers do want to understand why a candidate is interested in a particular role.

      1. Anonymous

        A cover letter is a very good test of business writing and communication skills–particularly since (in many but certainly not all cases) it more closely mirrors the style of writing that one does in a business setting than a writing sample from a college paper.

        The most important piece of advice I received about writing covers letters was to assume that the cover letter is read after the hiring manger has decided that s/he likes you based on your CV but before s/he decides to interview you.

  6. Jim

    The only thing HR does for a job applicant is screen them out. They don’t want reasons to hire someone that is not their call. Hiring managers make that decision. HR’s job is to post jobs, vague as possible, and keep people from getting through to managers. Like IT Prof has said, managers rarely read cover letters. They don’t want to know your hopes or dreams they are trying to figure out are you qualified and how will save them time and produce great things for them. Then they move on. Its not a date, its a job!

      1. IT Professional

        And what does a cover letter prove? That someone can write a letter? If the job is for a writing position then perhaps it makes a tiny bit of sense but otherwise I think you’re ‘putting a lot of weight on them’ says far more about you and your managerial style than it does about any of the candidates you’ve hired or eliminated based on their cover letter. I once hired a gent as a network admin and when he wrote email or letters or anything he was nearly an inarticulate boob, he was maybe the most socially and physically awkward guy I’ve ever met and he couldn’t spell to save his life, though admittedly English was his second language. But when it came to debugging complex BGP routing issues or ensuring proper load-balancing across multiple, redundant WAN links the guy was a bloody genius. I’m very sure that had I let HR run the candidate selection process then I would have missed out on a fantastic employee because any cover letter he wrote would have been horrible. Someone who puts a lot of weight on cover letters would have thought the guy completely unsuited but I’ve never met a more talented networker and I say that as a networker myself. Not only that, but when he came out of his shell a little bit he was also a great guy to have in the office. Over two years later he’s now in a senior position and learning to grow his leadership skills and deal with his communication short-comings. The small-minded and inside-the-box-approach to management and hiring that values cover letters is why there are so many jokes about managers in the first place. I can already tell you and I would not work well together because your priorities are completely bolloxed up. I have a fantastic track record in hiring people for my department and others, so much so that HR is no longer allowed to deal with any candidates from the technical departments, they don’t even see their resumes, until I have vetted them and interviewed them first. And from the level of competency I’ve seen in most HR departments, that’s the way it should be across the board- HR should make sure the W2s are filled out correctly, show the new employee the list of holidays, and get out of the way of the people with the focus, knowledge, and priorities to understand what really matters when it comes to filling a position.

        1. Anonymous

          A million times…^^^^THIS^^^^
          Doesn’t it ever weird people out how disconnected the hiring process is from the tasks it seeks to employ someone for? In a HUGE percentage of jobs, excelling at the ‘hire me’ process really shows nothing about a person’s ability to do the job advertised. So why do we search for new employees this way?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Because the cover letter introduces your candidacy. With 300 candidates for a single role, it’s not reasonable to have them all show up at your office and demonstrate their skills. You need to cull the pool.

  7. Jim

    Well technical positions require technical skills that takes years to develop. That is why so many Engineering managers want to know if the candidate can cut it. Things like this don’t flow well in a cover letter. That is why technical hiring managers don’t take much time with letters. They need to concepts, pictorial or otherwise demonstration of your skill set. Having physical samples of my work goes much farther than any cover letter. Cover letters are for screening by HR. Managers need to determine if candidate really has the skill set, because its their responsibility, not HR’s, to assess the skill set. When it comes to technical skills how can you judge something you don’t understand at all?

  8. Angry Applicant

    You are an ass. Cover letters are a thing of the past. Also, get your head out your smug ass. People today need A job, not THIS job.

      1. IT Professional

        I think the point being made by angry is that cover letters are an impediment to people obtaining the work they are best suited for. See my example above, my now Senior Network Engineer would never have made it past your screening and so every would have lost. The point is that cover letters are simply nonsensical hoops that people are made to jump through in the hiring process. It’s a complete and total waste of time for everyone involved. My time is just as valuable as yours is and many job seekers see it as an insulting waste of time to have to write a cover letter. I respect the people who want to work for my company enough that I won’t waste their time with cover letter or making them waste an hour by having to fill out long web-forms just to input the information I can see on their CV with a glance. Again, I’m a very experienced professional on both sides of the manager’s desk. I get rave reviews from my employees and from my supervisors as well, including in my hiring practices. My secret? I don’t listen to the buzzword-laden crap that most MBAs think is so important. What’s important is to get off the managerial high-horse, realize you’re just another employee, and treat everyone with respect and consideration…one way to do that is to not waste an unemployed person’s time with silly requests. If you want someone to jump through hoops, train your dog. People deserve more consideration than that. You probably think we are making too much of this and that is the inherent problem.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Perhaps we are hiring for very different types of jobs. For the jobs I hire for, cover letters are invaluable. (I also regularly hear from readers who say that once they start writing the sorts of cover letters they describe above, they suddenly start getting calls for interviews … which is my goal, so I’m not going to stop recommending it!)

          1. IT Professional

            That’s a chicken before the egg statement…they start getting calls because so many people put stock in these ridiculous things. Please tell us what jobs you feel a cover letter is invaluable in order to determine the best candidate. Personally, I think they are about as useful as someone writing about what they did on their summer vacation.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              Pretty much all the jobs I typically hire for: legislative jobs, research jobs, analyst jobs, admin jobs, writing/editing jobs, communications jobs, lobbying jobs, grant-making jobs, fundraising jobs — pretty much the gamut of nonprofit programs and operations.

              1. IT Professional

                Either you’re a qualified expert in all those fields or you have completely validated all my points. There is no way you are able to truly determine the requisite skills of all those positions, not the same way that someone who has actually done one of those jobs can. So even in your case, the cover letter is a generic criteria you demand so that you can make a decision which, in the end, is mostly arbitrary and only loosely related to the position. If I were hiring a writer, then I think samples of published or completed works would be the most telling thing I could ask for. For communications a phone interview would seem necessary, perhaps even a mock scenario over the phone. The success of a lobbyist would seem to be a matter of record and not something a cover letter would do any good to determine.

                The simple fact is, you are probably not hiring the best people for these positions. You are hiring the people that can bluff or bs their way into an interview with a cover letter. Nothing you’ve said here in any way invalidates any of the points I’ve made. There is no quantifiable reason for a cover letter, it’s just “busy work” that people use when they can’t really figure out what they need in the first place. There are far better ways to determine the best candidate and this conversation has only proven that to me.

                Again, every business would do themselves a huge favour by removing HR or hiring managers from the actual candidate selection process. Technical people should select the technical staff, admin should select the admins, financial the bean counters, editors should find their writers, and so on. It’s the only way that makes any kind of logical sense.

                The only people who think cover letters are actually valuable are those that have had a good draught of business school kool-aid. In the real world, with real jobs, and real people- performance, accomplishments, and KSAs are the only things that matter. I could probably write you an amazing cover letter that might get me an interview for a job I’m totally unsuited for, but what does that prove? Nothing other than the utter uselessness of the cover letter.

              2. Ask a Manager Post author

                Actually, I’ve worked in many of those field and supervised all of them. But are you really going to argue that one needs to be an expert in secretarial work in order to hire a secretary? If so, I’m afraid you lack of an understanding of what hiring is about.

                And of course one does phone interviews and exercises and brings others into the hiring process and so forth. But why wouldn’t you want one more initial data point for a job where written communication matters?

                Of course there are people who believe what you do. Maybe you’ve had success in hiring, maybe you haven’t; I obviously don’t know. (Although luckily for both of us, the success of one’s hiring can be measured by the results those people get on the job.) Whatever you happen to believe — and you can find people doing hiring who believe all kinds of crazy things — that doesn’t negate the fact that many, many other people find cover letters extremely useful as part of a larger package. Sorry that that hasn’t been your experience, but I think your dismissal of other people’s experience as being all MBA BS is a bit silly, particularly since it sounds like your experience is based on hiring for one very specific field.

                In any case, we’ll have to agree to disagree. What I do here is recommend what works, which is backed up by the feedback I get from readers who put the advice into practice.

  9. Jim

    I got to agree with IT. Besides these days everyone is looking for the candidate who is too busy working to write a cover letter. You say you hire for research but lets face it you don’t sound like you work in the hi – tech industry. How can someone tell whats a good fit in nano technology research if they don’t have the basic understanding of the industry? I guess you mean research in a different roll. I don’t know about working for a radio station or the things some of the art majors hope to work in, but I know a cover letter isn’t all its hyped up to be. Maybe the people business is still using it. But for tech people is skills and accomplishments. No one cares about your dreams or feelings here. Its can you get this done; and will you know what I’m talking about on day 1. But It Proff has some real experience I would listen to.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I hear from people constantly who were told they got an interview because of a cover letter. (Just heard from someone this evening who got the JOB because of what she wrote in her cover letter.) I continue to think skipping an additional data point just makes no sense.

  10. Jim

    Really, what someone wrote in a cover letter got them the job? How exactly did that conversation go. Oh I threw away your resume because I read your cover letter. We do not need to evaluate your skill set or check your background. Its all about that great cover letter. I doubt that is what happened. I’m sure people have had compliments on cover letters, and they have extended their thanks to you. But, I don’t believe people get hired on a cover letter alone. So to say that a cover letter got someone a job is a polite exaggeration.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You’re missing the point. No one hires on the basis of only a cover letter. But a great cover letter can open a door that otherwise would have remained shut. I’m actually going to post an example of this later today, from someone whose cover letter directly contributed to her getting a job. Of course she was still interviewed, references checked, etc. The point is that the cover letter got her in the door.

      Your tone is getting kind of hostile, and there’s really no need for that.

  11. Nyxalinth

    People are understandably getting cranky about things that they feel make it even harder for them to get a job in a wretched economy. Still, there’s no reason to take it out on Alison. She doesn’t have to run this blog: she does it because she enjoys helping others find the job that is best for them (I assume so, anyway!).

    She doesn’t make the rules. However, she does see value in a rule most potential employers have in place: send a cover letter. The fact is, the economy sucks rocks, employers are nit-pickier* than ever, and refusal to follow a request you disagree with isn’t going to get you a job.

    If the economy were strong and employers desperate, you would have far more room in things.

    Aside from this, Alison, what exactly are emplloyers looking for in a cover letter that tells them, “This person’s resume is worth looking at”?

    1. Nyxalinth

      *By nit-pickier, I dont mean asking for a cover letter is nit-picky, I mean that they’re looking for excuses (some of them pretty extreme) not to hire you. So why give them more ammunition with which to shoot you down?

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Thank you, that’s exactly right.

      Good employers are looking for two key things in a cover letter:
      1. Smarts. Does the person sound smart? How do they convey their thoughts in writing?
      2. An explanation of fit. What can you tell them about why you’d excel at this job? (That doesn’t mean summarize your resume; tell them why you’d be great at it like you’d tell a friend why you’d be great at it… i.e., with a friend, you probably wouldn’t recite your resume to explain that.)

      1. IT Professional

        If you boil down what you said to its most basic point, you think it’s ok to ask people to do extra work just because they’re desperate for a job. That’s pretty damn selfish.

        How, exactly, does one know if one will fit in a job until actually in the position? I don’t know about you but I’ve never truly understood the complexities of the individual workplace or even the work required until I’ve been in the chair for a while. To ask someone to write about something they can’t possibly know might be effective in a creative writing class or perhaps for a job writing but otherwise I’m really just amazed that anyone would claim that as a valid point.

        So we are left with boilerplate responses about how well the person works with others, is a team player, enjoys challenges and new experiences, and is willing to learn new ways to do things…all of which actually tell me absolutely nothing about how well the person will perform the duties of the job because no sane person will write about their true feelings in a cover letter. It’s all facade and smokescreen. And again, unless the job requires the person to write, or involves some form of communication such as PR for a good portion of their time, does grammar and punctuation really tell you much about their fit for the job? The ability to write is no indicator of “smarts.” That is an extremely antiquated idea of intelligence.

        It’s really a sad thing that probably many viable candidates, and statistically speaking some or even many of them are likely to be better suited than the ones who simply are able to write a banging cover letter, are being excluded because of some arbitrary and, in the end, completely useless task of writing cover letters. If I had my way cover letters would be a thing of the past.

        Perhaps in the grand scheme it’s a minor issue, but to that job seeker who had been out of work for the last 9 months or more anything that takes up his/her time from getting as many resumes out there as possible is a serious impediment to being able to make the rent or put food on the table. Any decent cover letter will take at least 30-60 minutes to write, spellcheck, re-draft, etc. if your’e going to tailor it to the specific company being applied to. In this day and age of email and electronic applications writing cover letters for every submission could be reducing the number of applications that person can submit by hundreds per day.

        Does a lack of a cover letter mean you’re going to hire someone not suited for the job? Of course not. But what it does do is waste the applicant’s time and only serves to limit the talent pool from which you get to choose. I feel that the people who put weight in them have never really stepped back and really looked at what information they actually get out of them. I did this years ago and I realized what a waste of time they were.

        I was given 5 resume/cover letter packs to sort through when hiring for a position. I looked the cover letters and they were all well written, grammatically correct, only minor, mostly subjective errors in punctuation, etc. Then I looked at what they said I saw that they might have been submissions for an exercise on how to re-word the exact same concepts- good working, likes challenges, etc. They actually told me nothing at all except these people knew the buzzwords and points to make to get through the HR screening process. They all said almost exactly the same thing.

        I ended up asking for all submitted resumes and made my own choice, which was not among the original 5. That person worked for me for 3.5 years and we were sorry to see him go when he decided to move to another location. Does that anecdote mean that the first 5 were totally unsuitable? No, of course not. But the person I hired was far more qualified and experienced, he just hadn’t submitted a cover letter and the HR dept tossed his exceptional CV to the side. I almost missed out on hiring a great employee and had I not asked for the other resumes would likely have gotten a mediocre employee, or at least one that would have taken 2 years to get to the level the actual peson I hired was when he walked through the door.

        I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, unfortunately, but I do try and get people to think. The next time you hire for a position take a hard, critical look at those cover letters. Weed out the stuff you could learn from the resume (accomplishments, projects managed, etc) and then boil the rest down to the essentials and compare the letters. I think you’ll find incredible similarities between what the various candidates say about themselves. They all know they are writing a cover letter and they probably know the points to hit. I would hope if you see that you would realize how little you can actually tell from a cover letter.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I think the issue here is that you haven’t seen a good cover. The ones you describe that talk about being a team player, etc. sound boring and awful. Of course they wouldn’t strengthen someone’s candidacy.

          What I know is that great cover letters get people interviews, and I’m not going to stop recommending one of the most effective things I know of in getting someone in the door. So we’re going to have to agree to disagree at this point because we’re going around in circles now.

        2. Alise

          Hi IT Professional,

          Are you hiring? I think I’d like to work for you! I’m in the SFO Bay Area and am a qualified Executive Assistant. I’d be happy to send my resume sans a cover letter.

          Alise

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