- 90% of executives say writing cover letters is valuable, according to a Robert Half survey.
- Job seekers can help themselves by tailoring their cover letters to specific employers.
- Incorporating keywords that match terms in the job posting can help job seekers with companies that use resume-filtering software.
In the age of the digital recruiting, do cover letters matter anymore? The short answer: Yes. Surprising to some, they matter more now than ever.
In fact, a Robert Half poll found that 90 percent of executives consider cover letters a valuable tool when assessing job candidates. Yet, far too often, job seekers treat them as afterthoughts to the resume.
Your cover letter is your introduction to a company and an opportunity to make a good first impression on your prospective employer. So don't squander it. Resumes help employers — with a growing number of assists from software — wade through a huge pile of applications. But the cover letter is often the first thing the hiring manager sees, especially as the pile shrinks to likely candidates. It's an opportunity to provide a brief accompanying narrative of who you are and why you're qualified for the position. So why not take advantage of this chance to shine?
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Here are some tips for writing the kind of cover letter that helps your resume jump to the top of the pile — one that convinces hiring managers and HR professionals to bring you in for an interview.
1. Don't just rehash your resume
A strong cover letter should do much more than just restate salient details from your resume. Here's a brief checklist of important functions of a cover letter:
- Draw attention to specific skills and experience that make you an ideal candidate.
- Mention relevant skills and personal qualities the resume may not illustrate.
- Explain why you would love to have the job in question — and how it advances your personal career goals.
- Establish any personal connections to the company or hiring manager, and how you'd like to help the business grow.
- Justify any gaps in your resume.
2. Tailor it to a specific job
Just as we recommend for the resume, take the time to target your cover letter to the job at hand. Write a cover letter they can't ignore. Begin by carefully reviewing the job description, making a list of specific skills and experience that match this particular role.
Just as important, gather facts and figures that support your claims. For example, if you're applying for a managerial role, mention the size of teams and budgets you have managed. If it is a sales role, discuss specific sales goals you've achieved.
In addition to highlighting your talents, you can further personalize your cover letter by demonstrating your familiarity with the specific industry, employer and type of position.
Remember, your future employer doesn't just want a warm body. They want employees who love their work. They know these are the people who tend to perform better, serve as stronger team members and have greater potential to grow along with the business.
3. Address the hiring manager personally
Just as you personalize your resume to the role, you should also address the cover letter to the person actually hiring for the position. If it is not spelled out in the job posting, call the employer's main phone number and ask for the name and title of the hiring manager.
This is also your chance to show that you've done your research on the company, its mission and key leadership. Mention any personal connections you have to the company and colleagues you might have in common. The cover letter process underscores one of the chief reasons for attending professional conferences and luncheons. Many job referrals are based on personal connections.
4. Use a standard business letter format
A cover letter is not a quick email you dash off. You should write to the same standards as any formal business letter. Use a standard font size (10 or 12 point, in a readable font style such as Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri). Keep it to one page (generally three or four short paragraphs). And include your name and contact information at the top in a business letter format.
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5. Use keywords from the job description
Many employers use resume-filtering software that scans for resume keywords and evaluates how closely resumes and cover letters match the preferred skills and experience.
That means your cover letter should incorporate key phrases you've identified in the job description. During the writing process, review qualifications such as the type of degree required, the number of years' experience needed, specified software skills, organization and communication abilities, and project management background.
6. Proofread thoroughly
Once you're convinced you've made a strong argument for your candidacy, it's time to proofread your work. No hiring manager wants to see a great cover letter with typos and grammatical errors.
After you've given your cover letter a final polish, ask a friend with excellent grammar, punctuation and spelling skills to review it. Consider giving him or her a copy of the job posting so they can help make sure you've hit all the right points.
7. End on a high note
In your concluding paragraph, reiterate in a sentence or two why you are the right person for this job. Most hiring managers will go to the resume after reading your cover letter, so prepare them to notice what you want them to see next.
Should you always send a cover letter?
Do you always have to submit a cover letter, or can you skip it? We checked in with a panel of career experts to find out.
Cover letters could give you an advantage.
You found an exciting new job posting and are getting ready to submit your resume, but what about a cover letter? Is it always necessary to spend time writing a cover letter, or are there times you can get away without one? We checked in with a panel of career experts to find out.
Pro: Cover letters can set you apart
“Skip the cover letter, and you miss out on an opportunity to sell yourself,” says Evelyn Salvador, author of Step-by-Step Cover Letters: Build a Cover Letter in 10 Easy Steps Using Personal Branding and principal of Creative Image Builders, a resume-development and career-coaching firm in Coram, New York.
Sending a cover letter along with a resume helps you build your brand the same way an advertising company promotes a product’s brand. “A well-defined brand wins interviews, maximizes salary potential and puts job seekers in the top 2 percent of candidates considered for positions,” Salvador says.
Think of your cover letter as another tool in your job search arsenal, says Betty Corrado, owner of career-coaching and resume-writing firm Career Authenticity in Cos Cob, Connecticut. “The cover letter is a key part of your marketing package,” she says. “Use it as an opportunity to convey your brand and value proposition.”
Pro: Cover letters let you reveal your personality and build rapport
A resume tends to be fact-based and somewhat formal, but a cover letter can be infused with personality. “Don’t be afraid to inject personal notes about interests or philosophies that may help employers determine if you will fit into their culture,” says Roleta Fowler Vasquez, professional resume writer and owner of Wordbusters in Fillmore, California. To increase the “wow” factor of their cover letters, she encourages applicants to add a few standout accomplishments that don’t appear on the resume.
Laila Atallah, a Seattle career counselor and owner of Career Counseling with a Twist, agrees that a cover letter can be more revealing than a resume. “The best cover letters are infused with energy, personality and details about the applicant’s skills and achievements,” she says. “I get a sense of the person and what they’ve accomplished, and it’s easier for me to picture them in their next job.”
Job seekers often make the mistake of sending a resume without a cover letter, says Ann Baehr, president of Best Resumes of New York in East Islip, New York. “This is a missed opportunity to establish rapport with employers and provide a sense of who they are beyond their work experience,” she says.
Thinking about skipping the cover letter when applying for an internal position? Don't. Use the cover letter to show how well you understand your employer’s mission and remind management of how much you have already accomplished.
Include a cover letter even if a colleague is submitting your resume for you. The letter is a chance to introduce yourself and mention your contact as a reminder that you are a referral. This is what a cover letter should include, should you decide to send one.
Pro: Cover letters let you tell a story
The cover letter can include information that would be out of place on the resume. “Job seekers can include the name of a mutual contact or referral, state how they would benefit the employer if hired and explain tricky situations such as changing careers, relocating, returning to the workforce and so on,” Baehr says.
Atallah encourages job seekers to learn about the requirements of the job opening and use the cover letter to express how and why they are uniquely qualified. “Use your cover letter to tell a story,” she says. “Studies show that stories are memorable and engaging, and cover letters are a perfect vehicle for expressing your successes in a more storylike format.”
When not to send a cover letter
Given all the reasons to send a cover letter, is it ever a good idea not to? “If the application instructions expressly say not to include a cover letter, or if an online application offers no opportunity, then you can forego the cover letter in these cases,” Atallah says.
Vasquez agrees that you should not send a cover letter when the employer specifically says not to. “This may be a test of your ability to follow directions,” she says.
What if you think the cover letter won’t be read? Corrado says that while some hiring managers say they don’t read cover letters, those who do may dismiss your application if you don’t send one. “Why take this chance when you need every possible advantage in this job market?” she asks.
While writing cover letters is time-consuming, the consensus is that the effort could give you an edge and help you land more interviews.
Looking for more ways you can stand out in your job search? Join Monster today. As a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume and cover letter. Recruiters search Monster every day looking for exceptional candidates just like you.