Job seekers, if you suspect that a cover letter serves no purpose, you’re wrong.
In fact, the reality is worse.
If they bother to read them at all, employers and recruiters look to cover letters as a way to disqualify applicants, says John Herath, director of human resources at Orion International recruiting firm headquartered in Cary, North Carolina.
Sometimes, the dismissal happens at a glance. Herath has eliminated candidates simply because the font was too small, causing him to squint. That’s especially heartbreaking when you consider that he rarely looks at a cover letter unless he already likes the candidate for the job.
He’s not the only one who seldom seriously considers all those carefully crafted cover letters that job applicants send. Because employers receive so many applications, cover letters generally are not read on the first pass. Yours might be seen eventually, but only after your résumé has made it through a few screenings.
Perhaps because cover letters are “just one more thing to scroll past,” as Herath puts it, only 18 percent of hiring managers think they’re an important part of a job-application package, according to a September survey by the Chicago-based consulting firm Addison Group.
Does that mean today’s job applicants shouldn’t bother writing cover letters?
It’s true that cover letters are a liability.
“There is nothing that will eliminate a job candidate faster than typos,” and so a cover letter with one mistake can potentially take a flawless résumé out of the running, says Mary Massad, recruiting services division president at Insperity, an HR solutions provider.
In fact, 55 percent of managers surveyed by Addison Group ranked typos as the biggest résumé turnoff – a disdain that presumably applies to imperfect cover letters, too.
On other hand, an excellent cover letter “can be a way to stand out, show some personality and connect with the person doing the hiring,” Herath says. “If I’m down to a pile of people with the right skills for the job, I might turn to their cover letters to look for the best cultural fit.”
He also can see the cover letter being of use in evaluating a candidate’s writing skills.
What qualifies these days as a good cover letter?
Overall appearance matters. A cover letter and résumé that are formatted nicely “just automatically get read first,” says Mike Ellis, managing director at Global Talent Resources, headquartered in Westfield, Indiana.
He also likes to see cover letters addressed to a specific person – “To whom it may concern” concerns no one – and kept to three or four paragraphs.
Since the person reviewing your application materials is likely the same person who wrote the ad or post for the job opening, Herath recommends studying the ad carefully and including the same keywords. Seeing his or her words on the page, the manager will identify you as a good match, he says.
For his part, Ellis thinks it’s a waste of space – and a wasted opportunity – to fill a cover letter with “information regurgitated from the job posting” as it comes across as a lack of imagination and individuality.
Despite the decreasing importance of cover letters, Herath wouldn’t go so far as to say they are dispensable.
“I’d be happy if I never saw one again,” says Herath, adding that a résumé without a cover letter is not an “incomplete package” as far as he’s concerned.
Nevertheless, it may be a good idea to include a cover letter to complement your resume even if it’s not so much appreciated as expected. And, needless to say, “If it says in the job posting to submit a cover letter, you should definitely do so,” Herath says.
Just don’t do so with the mind-set that “it can’t hurt” – because it certainly can.