The Great Cover Letter Debate

Posted on March 25, 2009. Filed under: cover letter, Resumes | Tags: , , , , , , |

To cover letter or not to cover letter … that seems to be the question these days. This past week alone on Twitter, my business partner and I must have come across or participated in no less than 30 discussions that started out something like this: “Do I really even need a cover letter? Does anyone read them anymore?”

At one point, someone even started a poll to gather opinions from around the blogosphere.

Responses to these pleas varied from “cover letters are worthless” to “one third of hiring managers say they still read them” to “social media is now replacing the cover letter.”

Whatever your take, there is no doubt that the presentation of the cover letter is changing to suit the varying avenues out there for applying for positions. Some claim that a short e-mail (a couple paragraphs max.) is fine with your resume attached when sending the resume via e-mail. Others claim that the cover letter detracts from the resume and sounds too much like a marketing letter anyway so ditch it all together. Still others think you should direct employers to your blog as a way of “introducing” yourself.

For me, I think this discussion really misses the more important point, which is what is the purpose of the cover letter in the first place? And if you opt out of putting together a traditional cover letter, how are you making up for it elsewhere?

When you speak with hiring managers and recruiters, some of them will tell you that they do not read through cover letters because they all sound like stock form letters written for hundreds of people to read. Other hiring managers will tell you that they might glance at the first sentence or two, figure out whether the letter is pretty pointless, and then quickly move on to the resume.

If all that is true, then what that tells me is that the reason cover letters aren’t often read isn’t because they are antiquated or even unwanted necessarily; it is because they simply aren’t effective and hiring people are tired of reading them.

Too often when job seekers are thinking about their resume and cover letter package, they are thinking about…themselves…and not about the audience they are trying to reach. This is a mistake for both documents, but it is particularly egregious when it comes to the cover letter.


Because a letter is a method of communication between you and the reader. If you aren’t able to communicate effectively with your reader, then you aren’t communicating.

Listen. A cover letter is your opportunity to showcase to a company what you know about it, be its culture, its needs, or its products/services. One of the biggest pet peeves that interviewers have is that they feel that most candidates don’t even know, much less care, about the mission of the company they are applying to.

So take what you know about the company and line it up with your background and accomplishments. Tell them how you fit in! I heard about a candidate who actually made a two-column table and placed the company’s job posting on the left side and then matched up those desired skills with his experience on the right side.

Personally, I like it when candidates talk about the products or services the company provides or quote from the vision statement of the company and personalize the letter that way. At least it says that you haven’t just sent this same letter to 200 other companies. It says that you want to work with this particular company for a particular reason.

I know, I know. I can hear you now: “It’s more time consuming this way.” But is it really? Think about it. Sure, you may spend less time sending out pointless cover letters but more time on your job search overall. So why not take the opportunity to turn what is a missed opportunity for so many others into an effective tool for you? Even if it costs you a few extra minutes on the front end.

These days everyone is trying to stand out. Maybe the best way to do that is simply to do the basic things well.

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One Response to “The Great Cover Letter Debate”

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No brainer: if the employer asks for a cover, send it. I routinely ask for a “cover and a resume,” in that order, and probably 50% of candidates disregard the first half of the instruction. I might still consider an amazing resume with no cover, but the person is starting at a distinct disadvantage.

No brainer #2: if you aren’t qualified on paper, or you are making a career or industry change, are overqualified, or it’s not clear why I should give you a second look, you need to build your case somehow. ‘Somehow’ could be a cover, or it could be the text of your email or link to your blog or whatever. But your resume with no explanation is probably going nowhere.

I glance at covers and if it’s the same ol’ cut & paste, my eyes glaze over. Conversely, if someone writes a great cover letter in real language, connecting with the mission of the organization, my eyes perk up and I read every word. It absolutely can mean the difference between interview and no interview.

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