There have been claims recently that cover letters are a waste of time and that you’ll get more interviews if you stop using them. A study also came out that implied the exact opposite: it said that “only” 93% of hiring managers like to see a cover letter with a resume. No wonder you’re confused. Let’s clear up that confusion.
A cover letter is communication tool designed to personalize the resume, add more information, and build a bridge between you and the recruiter or hiring manager. Properly used, it can get your resume read with serious attention and support your resume’s story by revealing additional information about the professional behind it.
Can cover letters help resume database performance?
Uploading your resume into a resume database (ATS or Applicant Tracking System) has become the default approach to job search, even though almost all job hunters find this approach less than effective.
ATS allow recruiters to access resume databases with keyword searches in much the same way as you use a Google search. The resumes with the most keywords—in the right places and used most frequently—rise to the top. The recruiter will probably look at no more than the top twenty results.
Recruiters search databases for resumes, not cover letters, so an accompanying cover letter has secondary importance because it will be read only after the resume has been reviewed. Sometimes it can increase your database visibility by improving your keyword-count ranking in recruiters’ searches, and it will never work against you.
Resume databases are commercial enterprises, tailored to the needs of paying customers: headhunters, corporate Human Resource recruiters from larger companies, and hiring managers from smaller companies. Consequently, when you see one of these options:
- A dialog box for inserting a cover letter
- A dialog box requesting a cover letter as part of the application process
- A dialog box demanding a cover letter as part of the application process
- A dialog box requesting specific information as to your suitability
It means that someone in the selection cycle thinks information in addition to the resume will speed the recruitment process. Because ATS functions by tracking keywords, a cover letter with keywords relevant to the job posting can help your resume’s ranking, and therefore the likelihood of it being reviewed by a recruiter’s eyes, where it can increase your desirability by adding insights additional to the resume.
So when a resume database has the option for uploading a cover letter, it would be crazy not to take advantage of the opportunity to promote yourself.
Cover Letters and Networking
Everyone agrees that uploading your resume into ATS databases is one of the least effective job search strategies. So what’s the best way to get more interviews? I am convinced the most effective strategy is to integrate networking into every aspect of your job search; this will generate more interviews and reduce your reliance on ATS resume banks.
At the heart of networking is an emphasis on talking to people, and most important, talking to the people who can hire you. This means that your every job search activity should be focused on getting into conversation with the people who are in a position to hire you as quickly and as frequently as possible.
As you learn how to network, your e-mail approaches to recruiters and hiring managers will increase. Subsequent telephone interviews and face-to-face meetings will all be scheduled by e-mail. Whatever goes into those e-mails—whether a resume is attached to your e-mail or not—is essentially a cover letter.
Which brings us back to where we started: an overwhelming number of credentialed recruiters and experienced hiring managers appreciate a cover letter. It may not get you hired, but combined with a resume it will build a bridge between you and your readers and get your resume read with serious attention.
When you have the ability to approach someone directly involved with the selection cycle by name, you must personalize your resume with a cover letter; anything else would be insanity.
There’s a lot that goes into a killer cover letter. Here are some useful resources:
Martin Yate, CPC, author of Knock 'em Dead: Secrets & Strategies for Success in an Uncertain World, is a New York Times and international bestseller of job search and career management books. He is the author of 11 job search and career management books published throughout the English speaking world and in over 50 foreign language editions. Over thirty years in career management, including stints as an international technology headhunter, head of HR for a publicly traded company and Director of Training and Development for an international employment services organization.
Anyone who's ever applied for a job knows how stressful it can be. And for some, the hardest part is the cover letter.
It should be professional, but make you stand out. It should be short, but not too short.
While a cover letter can seem like a formality, it's an important first step in the process.
"It's your personal sales brochure," said James Innes, chairman of the James Innes Group and author of several career books. No wonder it's so daunting.
Here are a few tips to help you pen the cover letter most likely to get you hired.
Read the job posting closely
"The things that come at the top of the job description are the most important," said Martin Yate, career coach and bestselling author of the Knock 'Em Dead series.
To make sure you highlight the traits your potential employer really cares about, refer to the skills listed in the job posting to inform how you talk about yourself in your letter.
Yate suggested going a step further by reviewing job listings at several companies, and seeing if any skills or traits are repeated across an industry. "I would recommend collecting half a dozen job postings," he said. "Look at what they have in common."
Quality over quantity
When you're first looking for jobs, it can be tempting to send out a generic cover letter to as many employers as possible. But that doesn't work, Innes said. Recruiters can tell, and they don't like it.
Keith Bevans, head of Bain & Company's global consultant recruiting, warned that a poor cover letter can hurt an applicant's chances of getting the job. "The cover letter becomes an important data point on how good they are at certain skills that might be relevant to the job they're applying for," he said.
Related: How to answer the salary question during a job interview
Make a good first impression by ditching "to whom it may concern." Instead, look for the name of a hiring manager and address it to them. You should also try to find out a little bit about them, and say something nice about their achievements. "If you can flatter someone in the opening line and create a connection, you've got their attention," said Yate.
Tell a good story
Once you've determined what matters to employers, figure out what type of story you want to tell about yourself -- and be succinct.
"The best cover letters tend to be short and to the point," Bevans said. You don't want to repeat what's in your résumé.
Rather than telling employers what you think you're capable of, tell them what you've already achieved. "People are hired on credentials, not potential," said Yate. "We want to leave out things like 'I think I could do a great job.'" Offer specific, relevant examples, Innes added.
Related: What top employers look for in new college grads
Bevans noted that if you're going to use buzzy terms to describe yourself, you should be able to back them up. "A lot of students write cover letters that are like treasure maps with no treasure," he said. "If you say you're a good team player" you should have a specific example to back that up, said Bevans.
Stick to clean templates
Yate recommended using one of two possible cover letter formats. The first is a simple letter, made up of a few paragraphs and lasting no longer than a single page. First get your reader's attention with a personal reference, then name the position you're applying for. In the following paragraphs, lay out your relevant skills and experiences. Conclude by outlining an actionable next step. Rather than telling the reader you look forward to hearing from them, say you'll reach out by a certain date to follow up.
The second format is called an executive briefing. You still write a paragraph at the top explaining what you're applying for, and one at the bottom with a plan of action. But instead of writing out some paragraphs in between, set up two columns: One with a list of requirements pulled form the job posting, and one with a list of your corresponding skills and achievements. This format lets recruiters see clearly why your experience makes you a good fit for the job.
Check your work
"Presentation is important," said Innes. That means not only that your cover letter should be cleanly laid out, but also that your spelling and grammar have to be perfect.
"Recruiters sit and read through a lot of résumés," Innes said. "You become very good at spotting those errors." Chances are, he said, recruiters will just trash a cover letter with spelling or grammatical errors.
CNNMoney (New York) First published November 16, 2017: 10:27 AM ET