Cover Letters Get a Bum Rap

Posted on September 24, 2012. Filed under: cover letter | Tags: , , |

These days, whenever employers post a job opening, their inboxes are flooded with responses from a variety of job seekers with varying levels of education and experience. Needless to say, it is an ordeal for employers to weed through the pool of candidates to find not only someone who is qualified for the position but also who fits in with the corporate atmosphere. As a result, applicant tracking systems have become a big business, anything to help companies sift through resume after resume after resume.

It’s a shame, really, because lost in all that is the cover letter.

Back in my corporate hiring days, it was a key piece for me in weighing potential candidates.

But, in today’s crazy job search world, the cover letter has been maligned.

Many of my recruiter and business owner friends toss out or ignore cover letters completely, but I think this can be a mistake. For me, it turned out to be a great way to sift through the candidates because it allowed me to look for a few key things before I moved into the realm of examining resume qualifications. Unlike the resume, which is meant to dazzle and “wow” you with accomplishments, the cover letter, theoretically at least, is meant to be more personal. The candidate is speaking directly to you (or to your company at least). So in my mind, I wanted to see what he or she had to say first before I assessed each person solely on experience.

To give you an idea of some ways I found the cover letter invaluable, I comprised the following list of things to look for in these documents. Without a doubt, it made the weeding out process much simpler for me and I ended up with team members who met my qualification needs and demonstrated the attitude that best suits my environment:

Get a sense of the candidate’s personality.

What is the tone of the cover letter? Is it friendly and professional, or is it casual and unorganized? How does that meet up with type of workplace you have to offer? These factors could be key indicators of the candidate’s personality, and paying attention to these aspects helped me weed out individuals that wouldn’t mesh well with my company. Unfortunately, many job seekers miss the boat here and write dry, non-value-added letters, but can you blame them, especially when everyone tells them these documents are pointless?

Get a sense of the candidate’s written communication skills.

Was the letter filled with grammatical errors? Does he or she know how to use punctuation properly? Does he or she know the correct format for a business letter? Strong communication skills were an important part of the job I was looking to fill, and the cover letter was a good way for me to see the candidates’ writing abilities.

Get a sense of whether the candidate knows how to tailor the cover letter to speak directly to your company.

Did the job seeker take the time to research and write a thoughtful, creative cover letter tailored to reflect your company and how each of your goals match? Whether the cover letter is an obvious copy written to fit any number of organizations or is unique to your company reveals a great deal about the candidate’s work ethic.

Get a sense of whether the candidate has a good grasp of professional etiquette.

Did he or she reveal unnecessary personal information? Was the language formal and polite? The professionalism displayed in a cover letter is a good indicator of the type of professionalism to expect from the candidate in person.

Get a sense of whether the candidate has a good grasp of the position and its required skills.

This is a good gauge of a candidate’s intelligence and comprehension skills. Did he or she read and understand the job posting carefully? Does the candidate have an accurate idea of how to match qualifications with the job requirements? Several people who responded to my posting were overqualified for the position, and based on the way they wrote their cover letters, they knew it too. Also, several people didn’t even use the correct title when discussing the position. I’m pretty sure they weren’t even sure what they were applying for.

Listen. No one likes to reject people; as a small-business owner, it is my least favorite part of the job. To ensure that I wasted as little of my time as well as the applicants’, I used the cover letters to assess the candidates and found it an effective method to ensure that those I did choose to interview already were a good fit for the position. Of course, it is always possible the candidate did not write his or her letter and paid or had someone else do it. But either way cover letter writing is somewhat of an art form and can reveal many things a resume cannot.

I understand no one has “time” anymore. I mean, after all, people brag that they can’t even peruse a resume for longer than 7 seconds or whatever. But maybe they should take a little time and think about what they are saying. If hiring the best candidate is your goal, then it takes some dedication to do so. And if cultural fit is so important, then I’m sure we could all find the time.

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