did I commit a cardinal job-searching sin?

A reader writes:

I think I have inadvertently committed a cardinal job-searching sin. Here’s the necessary backstory: I’m a recent college grad (June ’14) looking for a job in a STEM field. I signed up for a job-search group run by a local career counselor, and it was very helpful regarding resumes, cover letters, networking, etc. A woman in the job search group has a friend who works for Local Biotech Company (henceforth known as LBC) and kindly offered to have this friend, “Laura,” refer me to LBC. I have never met Laura or even corresponded with her over email beyond thanking her for the referral.

“Joanne,” the woman who runs this group, told me that when you’ve been referred for a job you do not need to submit a cover letter with your application. I explicitly clarified this with Joanne a few times, since it seemed too good to be true, but she was adamant. So I applied for a few jobs at LBC after I was referred and just uploaded my resume, leaving the “upload cover letter” field blank. I never heard back from them but I didn’t read too much into that because hey, it happens. This was in November of last year.

Then several months later I found your fantastic website, and as I read some of what you’ve said about the importance of cover letters, my heart sank. I now find it extremely unlikely that I actually did not need to submit a cover letter and I’m cringing at the thought that I’ve forever blown my chances at getting a job with LBC.

My questions for you are as follows: First, is it true that you don’t need to submit a cover letter for jobs you’ve been referred to, even if you’ve never met the person referring you? Second, is there any way for me to salvage this situation and re-apply to LBC? If I do reapply, how should I address my previous cover letter-less application (if I should address it at all)? And should I reach out to Laura and…I don’t know what I would say to her, actually. Apologize for being clueless?

There are indeed times when you don’t need to submit a cover letter because you’ve been connected through a personal referral. I will sometimes say to a candidate who’s coming through a personal referral who I know and trust, “No need to send a cover letter — just shoot over your resume.” It’s because I know based on the referral that I’m going to want to interview the person regardless and their cover letter is unlikely to change my mind on that, and so I don’t want to make them jump through a hoop for the sake of hoop-jumping.

But the key is that the only person who has standing to make that call is the person who’s doing the hiring. No one from outside the company has standing to decide that on the company’s behalf.

And this career counselor presenting this as a blanket rule that you should always follow? Totally off-base. She did you a disservice (and unfortunately you should now probably be skeptical of other advice she’s given you too, because she was really off-base on this one).

That said, is this a cardinal job-searching sin? It is not. It may indeed have torpedoed your chances for those particular jobs — or it’s possible that you wouldn’t have been interviewed for those jobs anyway, who knows. But you definitely don’t have a black mark in your record with them; they’re not recording a shocked statement anywhere that you are the heathen who didn’t send in a cover letter.

The next time you see a role at LBC that you’re interested in applying to, apply and include a cover letter. Make it a good one — personalized, engaging, blah blah blah. And then send Laura a quick email saying something like, “I wanted to let you know that I applied for the X role at LBC. I’d be so grateful if you’d be willing to refer me again, and I’ve attached my materials here as well.”

However. I also wouldn’t put too much weight on Laura’s referral, even if the whole cover letter situation had never happened. A referral from someone who doesn’t know you isn’t worth very much to a company. Some companies do have referral systems that will give those applications a special look, but in general hiring managers care about referrals from people who can vouch for your work, not ones from people who just traded an email or two with you.

So, the good news here: It’s very unlikely any of this has blown your chances for being considered by this company in the future. The bad news: This job search group is probably not as helpful as you thought it was, on a couple of different fronts.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Stephanie

    No, you’re probably fine. If they’re interested enough, they’ll call even without the cover letter. That being said, I do find it easier to interview when I’ve written some sort of cover letter just because I have a written version of why I’m interested in and would be a good fit for (in my mind) a particular job.

  2. Amber Rose

    Got my current job without a cover letter because I was referred. It isn’t that crazy.

    Cover letters are a good idea because they allow you to explain why you want the job, and why they should want you to do it. A referral works in a roughly similar way, but much in the way a generic cover letter is kinda useless, so is a generic referral not that helpful. You want someone to go to bat for you, not be like “This Jane person wants a job or something.”

    But the point is, unhelpful is not the same as detrimental. The worst that happens without a cover letter is that you’re not noticed and soon forgotten. If you had a cover letter in neon pink comic sans where you cursed like a sailor, that is when you can probably kiss your chances with that company goodbye. ;P

    1. Seal

      +1 to this. I once rejected a candidate whose cover letter had our institution’s colorful, copyrighted logo as a watermark. Had they not had a cover letter at all, I may have commented at the time and let it go or assumed there was an issue with the application software. Unfortuately for candidate, all I remember about them now is that our logo does not make a good watermark.

      1. GoodWatermark

        Maybe that should be a consideration when designing a logo, i.e. that it will make a good watermark. :)

      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        Including a framed photo is a horrible idea.

        You should have the photo printed onto a cake, duh!

  3. Cassie

    I think I would always include a cover letter, if only because the system asked for it. I’d probably be worried that whoever looks at the applications first (if someone in HR or maybe it’s automated) would reject the application because one of the requirements was missing. And depending on how strict the hiring process is, even if Laura saw the application and wanted to move forward with it, it might be too late to go back and ask the OP for a cover letter because they are no longer accepting applications for the position.

    I don’t think the OP has ruined his/her chances for the future – I doubt anyone will remember.

    1. LiveAndLetDie

      It does depend on the system, and what the company’s looking for. At my company some of the jobs require a lot of attention to detail, and the job listing says a cover letter is required — so if someone doesn’t submit one, it can come across as a lack of attention to detail and get the candidate disqualified on its own. I’m pretty sure for listings that require a cover letter, applications without one get filtered out before a hiring manager even sees them.

      I’d personally err on the side of ‘include it anyway,’ unless you were shooting the resume directly to the person that told you not to bother.

  4. INTP

    This may vary by company or region but my experience on the recruiting end was that cover letters aren’t even very important in tech. Many recruiters don’t even look at the cover letter if it’s an application system where you attach both, they go straight to the resume. If it’s in the body of an e-mail it will probably be read but still isn’t a vital part of getting the job when so many candidates can’t write well in English or just don’t bother to.

  5. Jessica

    Welcome to the fold, LW! Before I found Alison’s blog, I was calling employers to set up an interview because that’s what all the job search books I was reading said to do. So, I guess what I’m saying is almost everyone has an embarrassing thing they did to try to land a job! Nbd and no need to be very embarrassed about it. I’m glad you found this blog so you can get some real, excellent advice.

  6. Oldblue

    It will take a while before you get the hang of everything. When I first looked for jobs out of undergrad I was doing everything wrong and my cover letter was atrocious. I’ve learned a lot especially by reading AAM, and I do get responses because of it.

  7. jcsgo

    For my current (new) job, I was already involved with the nonprofit and knew the hiring manager. I think he asked for a cover letter, but I would have written one anyway. For me, I communicate better in written form (vs. verbally). The writing process helps me review the job description in detail, think through why I am a solid candidate and what I bring to the table for the company. Basically my angle is, I’m done writing once I am convinced that I portrayed my candidacy in the best/most accurate light possible. That way, however the hiring decision goes, I know I prepared well and the company made a decision about me based on solid info.

    It also doesn’t hurt to show/reiterate you are on board with the company’s mission and values by actually expressing this in your letter. I guess ultimately I have written cover letters for myself as much as for the employer. They’ve helped convince me (and ease my nerves, as I feel much more prepared, having thought honestly about the position and my candidacy so thoroughly.)

    Also, even if the people in the hiring process know you, they have lots on their minds and may not know you have experience with X and Y, in addition to the Z experience they are looking for. In your cover letter, you can go on to elaborate why X and Y will be beneficial for the company – something that’s not readily apparent just by reading a resume. To me, the cover letter expresses your understanding of the position and what you bring to the table.

    Plus, the hiring manager may know you but she may forget to mention to other interviewers some level of detail about why she considers you a great candidate. It helps to make it easy for her by putting it in writing, and then to reiterate and expound upon what you wrote during an interview. Use every tool/method at your disposal to show how you’re a solid candidate (and will contribute to the team – by making things easier for them!)

  8. Rat Racer

    I work for a huge fortune 100 company, and am hiring for a position on my team. 41 applicants so far and only 2 (2!) have written cover letters, and both were totally generic: summary of resume, no indication of why they wanted this job or why they’d be good at it.

    I don’t bring this up to discourage people from writing cover letters, but I was very surprised at the low CL turnout. Not much I can do about it – would be shooting own self in foot if I rejected the other 39 because they didn’t have cover letters, especially when the two I received were so meaningless.

    People aren’t sending me thank you notes either. Perhaps I live in an alternate universe where the normal job conventions do not apply…

    1. Lynne

      I always send in a customized cover letter when applying for jobs, and when I’ve been on the hiring end it’s surprised me too that so many people don’t bother – a lot of the time it’s an easy way to get noticed positively, at least if you can write a reasonably decent cover letter, and why not take advantage of that? It doesn’t have to be an amazing piece of prose, just something showing you’ve at least read the job description and thought a little about how you qualify. It is possible I overestimate how many people have enough writing skill to be able to do that.

      (I’d thought my experience with this was skewed from only being involved in hiring for a small org in a smallish town – we don’t get THAT many people interested in moving here…I would’ve expected the bar to be higher for your applicants, Rat Racer. Guess not!)


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