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Clients often ask me if cover letters are necessary. My answer is, it depends. Cover letters are the most vexing part of the job application process. Because applying for jobs takes a good amount of effort, it’s understandable that job seekers want to make sure to invest that effort where it counts. In this article, I’ll share some considerations and guiding principles for writing cover letters.
Determine if You Need a Cover Letter First
- Consider your audience and the industry. If you, yourself, are a hiring manager and never read cover letters and have peers in the same industry who also do not read cover letters when screening applicants, then there’s a good chance you don’t need one. The point is to understand the industry you are applying in and plan accordingly. This is where having an established, well-nurtured LinkedIn network can help; you can ask connections in your targeted industry whether they use cover letters.
- Are you an insider candidate? If you are have been recruited for a position and have a strong internal advocate, it’s likely you don’t need a cover letter. On the other hand, some industries and settings such as academia fully expect one.
- When in doubt, send one. The fact is, most of the time cover letters are needed. The first two points above describe outlier cases, so if you’re not sure whether you should submit a letter, err on the side of caution. Submit a letter unless a job posting explicitly instructs you not to send one.
If You Need a Cover Letter, Write an Effective One
- Be strategic on all levels, from sentence structure to overall framing and content. My experience has taught me that most cover letters are not effective because they tend to be either poorly written or are a bore to read, which often stems from lack of a good strategy. There are only so many times a reader can be expected to tolerate “I + verb” sentence structures before their eyes start to glaze over. Think strategically about how you can share information that complements your resume but doesn’t completely duplicate it, and then write accordingly.
- Be persuasive. Make no bones about it; your cover letter is a piece of persuasive writing—just like your resume. Make sure you know your main point and provide evidence in support of it. Show, don’t tell. Be specific about your experience, contributions, and results, and quantify them in numbers, dollars, or percentages whenever possible.
- Keep it to one page. Except for certain circumstances and industries, the general expectation is that a cover letter should be one page. Be kind to your tired, distracted reader and keep it direct and to the point by focusing your letter on why you are a logical fit for the organization and the role.
- Use formatting for emphasis and readability. If you have key information you want to highlight, make sure it stands out. Consider using formatting such as bullet points to accomplish this, which is advice I also give for writing effective resumes. Note: I do not use tables because they might not be read in applicant tracking systems (ATSs).
- Don’t forget the obvious. Make sure you include the specific job title and requisition number as they are listed in the job posting, either at the top of the letter near the salutation or in the opening paragraph of the text. This step may be simple but can be easily overlooked.
- Address the reader by name. Don’t open your letter with “To Whom It May Concern.” Do your best to find out the name of the person you should address the letter to. LinkedIn might be your best friend for finding this information. If you’ve done all the research you can including calling the organization (check the posting first—some specify “no calls”) and still have not come up with a name, then the current trend and accepted practice is “Dear Hiring Manager.” Or, if there is a search committee, which is common in academia and for executive searches, “Dear Chair of the Search Committee” or “Dear Search Committee” will suffice. If you are submitting through a recruiting firm, you can address the letter to the recruiter.
- Show enthusiasm. The cover letter is an opportunity to show qualifications but also excitement about the job prospect. To do so, you can briefly explain what draws you to the field, position, or organization in a way that pushes beyond experience or qualifications. Everyone has passions. If the job is in a field you are passionate about, make sure you show it (but don’t just don’t rely on the word “passion” alone to get your point across).
- Ditch the fluff. No one wants to read that you’re an “ambitious, self-starting, results-oriented, problem-solving professional in the engineering consulting industry.” Forget the fluffy adjectives and instead focus on clear, crisp writing that relies more on nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs. For instance, consider this alternative: “My 11 years of progressive experience as a mechanical engineer and project director in the engineering consulting industry has led to my specialty in working with heavy and light industrial manufacturing facilities. Tight deadlines and demanding clients are challenges I welcome, and I thrive when managing complex projects that involve collaboration among several engineering disciplines.”
- Take the time to revise and proofread. For everyone’s sake, take the time to revise and polish your letter. After you draft it and make revisions, print your letter if possible and then read it out loud. This step will help you catch errors. Also, it’s a good idea to give yourself enough time to let the letter sit a day so you can look at it with fresh eyes when doing your last pass through.
Most people do not like writing—or reading—cover letters. But that could be because most cover letters are bad. If you write a stellar letter, it might be the one thing that helps you stand out from the crowd.