Cover Letters: Do You Need One?
Sometimes the first steps are the hardest.
And when it’s time for you to begin a new job search, one of the first things you need to do is prepare your resume.
You want it to be detailed but succinct; you want to impress but not boast; you want to hit all the markers in the job requirements without your resume becoming convoluted. It’s easy to find it tiring and it’s easy to start to lose momentum. One of the easiest things to do when your interest starts to wane is to discount the next most important document you need to prepare: your cover letter.
If you’ve hit that point, I’m sure you’ve experienced doubt as to whether or not a cover letter is even worth it. You may have looked online, or talked to friends and family, and heard pessimistic thoughts about whether or not any recruiter is even going to read anything besides your resume.
The truth is, some employers will, and some won’t. But you can’t let that chance hold you back from applying yourself to your full potential!
When you have the opportunity for someone to read about you in a more colorful context than the dates and details of your resume, it’s time to take action. So let’s talk about the elephant in the room, and what a cover letter should mean for you!
The evolving nature of the cover letter
You may be feeling that expressing yourself — your ambitions and advantages for the business to which you’ve applied — has to be presented in some archaic format. Maybe you’ve read Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and believe that the notion of sending cover letters is stuck in the 1930’s. But that couldn’t be further from the truth!
While cover letters have been around for a long time, their nature has also changed with the times. Nowadays, making quality applications is even more important than making a large quantity of them. And with the modern focus on company culture fits, this is your best chance to show your qualities on paper.
Don’t assume your cover letter needs to be hand written and written in some formal tone. If anything, a cover letter is conversational. This means your letter should match the conversational tones of the time you’re living in.
For example, why not rethink the medium in which you present your cover letter? If you are applying to a new job opening online, you will probably need to email it to the recruiter. Instead of attaching a separate cover letter document, treat the email itself as your letter! Introduce yourself, as well as the resume they’re about to read, in the conversation you’ve already begun with your potential employer!
We know “why you should not”, but “why should you” send a cover letter?
So, we’ve addressed that there are still many recruiters who will want to see your cover letter in addition to your resume. But why does it matter to them (and by extension, why should it matter to you)?
Did you know the term “cover letter” comes from Wall Street? In the mid-century, a “cover letter” was a term in the world of finance for a page attached to a document of raw financial data. Imagine looking at page after page of long strings of numbers, without any context. It would be confusing, right?
Well the cover letter let accountants and analysts contextualize the data so they could better understand and appreciate the information ahead. And the EXACT same thing goes for the cover letter you attach to your resume!
Your resume is a nuts-and-bolts summary of your credentials. And while you may outline some of your experience in prose, it will essentially require any recruiter to read between the lines if they want to get an idea of who you are as a person. A cover letter affords you the chance to show off the big picture about what you can bring to the company — not just a work history, but the future you can offer them.
If a resume is the ingredient list on a can of product, your cover letter is the attractive marketing logo.
What does a cover letter look like?
While we touched on the idea that the medium of a cover letter might be changing, there are still many universal truths to crafting a good one.
For one, keep it brief. It’s not an autobiography, nor a novel. It should fit comfortably on one page, somewhere approximately between 150-250 words. Avoid flowery language and jargon. Speak clearly and naturally.
You also want to break your message into its key components. Start by acknowledging which position you’re applying for, and who you’re speaking to.
Then boil down your intent. Why are you applying for this job, and why does it matter to you?
Next, connect the dots for the recruiter between your past successes and the value you can bring to the company. Focus on the top three reasons at most, to show that there are clear, inarguable reasons why YOU are the best candidate!
Then, of course, sign off with a thank you and your name.
This should take no more than 3 paragraphs, plus the salutations.
Don’t reinvent the wheel every time
One final point which will help you improve your overall job search strategy is this: customize, but don’t recreate.
You don’t need to build a cover letter from scratch each and every time you apply for a job. It’s ok to have a boilerplate that you use for jobs within the same field, that you only make minor alterations to. Change a few keywords to align with the specific job requirements each time, while maintaining the overall feel.
That said, be sure you are confirming each time that the addressees and job titles are correct each time. There’s no faster way to show a recruiter you don’t care than having an obviously cookie-cutter application.
Remember, you want to stand out amongst other applicants, so be sure each of your applications stands on its own.