The Value of Cover Letters

August 5, 2015

Ah, cover letters.  Those elusive, misunderstood documents.  Some people say you need them; others say they're drivel.  Which one is it?


Putting aside the "drivel" comment, it depends on the industry to which you're applying.  Before talking about that, let's get some clarity surrounding cover letters.


What They Are


Essentially, these are documents that precede the resume.  Before a recruiting professional looks at a resume, the cover letter whets the appetite by highlighting certain aspects of the resume.  So you can think of it as an extension of your resume, one that allows elaboration on your skills and professionalism.


What They Are Not


Although these are professional documents, they are not dissertations or full-on company-wide letters explaning the intricacies of your inner workings.  There is no solid rule on what should go in the letter, but what shouldn't go in it is a detailed list of your history, complete with supervisor names, addresses, contact numbers, and social-media profiles.  (That's reserved for the reference page.)


What to Keep in Mind


Why aren't these full-on presentations of your skills?  Because time is of the essence.  You may spend 30 minutes crafting a cover letter, but a recruiter may spend 30 seconds reviewing it, if at all.  These professionals are rushed because they have to constantly go through a deluge of applications and resumes for positions, identifying the ideal candidates.  This is a time-consuming process.  It's no wonder that they can't spend a lot of time on your documents.


You want to be mindful of this when you are writing your cover letter.  We suggest keeping it to three or fewer paragraphs, enough for you to highlight some successes and list notable skills that you feel are germane to the position at hand.


To Write or Not to Write


There is contention over whether a cover letter is mandatory.  Some resume-writing professionals swear that you'll be looked down upon if you don't create a cover letter for every resume submission.  Other professionals admit to tossing it aside and focusing on the resume.  So who approaches this more ethically?


The reality is that it really depends on the industry.  Some industries, such as those requiring intensive language or writing skills, will want a cover letter; obviously, they want to see how well you can communicate as well as how adroitly you can move through grammar and tell your story.  So include a well-written, industry-standard cover letter.  (Pay attention to your syntax and format, please.)


The IT industry finds them superfluous, though this is not a universal truth.  IT people are science- and math-driven by nature.  Though you have to have good communication skills in the inudstry, especially when you're working in groups, the focus is more on technical ability.  Do you know how to program well?  How proficient are you with networking?  Do you understand what a SQL database is?  Will it harm you to make a cover letter for your positions?  No, but it may be a lesson in futility.




The format of the letters are in block style, though some people prefer modified block.  Block-style formatting means that all text is left-justified, with no tab indentation for the first word of each new paragraph.  This is preferred, as it gives a clean look to the document.


It's preferred that you choose a business-friendly typestyle, which is normally Times New Roman, 12 point.  Some other styles may be appropriate; just make sure they look professional and not cutesy.  (The exception is if you're applying for creative or art-related fields.  Then it's time to get fancy and nonstandard.)


Then you have up to three paragraphs, with the first indicating where you found the position and what prompted the interest in submitting for it; the second sharing some details about the skills germane to your providing stellar service to your prospective employer; and the third sharing how you can be contacted and setting expectations about what you'd hope to hear.


Dos and Don'ts


There are demonstrably better ways to write your letter, of course.  Here are some things to consider when writing the letter:


*Addressing the letter to the write team or person, if possible

*Keeping the language respectful

*Including a call to action

*Trying to stay in the active voice as much as possible, though using the passive voice is acceptable if done right

*Being succinct


And some things you want to avoid:


*​Being obsequious
*Being garrolous or glib
*Having notable spelling or grammar issues


*Using jargon that someone in that industry wouldn't be aware of
*Being pushy


So there you have it.  If you need a cover letter, make sure it's a good one, i.e., not rambling and setting explanations about what you're looking for.  Everything else, you can forget about.







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