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Why Are Cover Letters Still Such a Mystery?

Topics: Career Advice
cover letters

Cover letters are annoying. They’re annoying to write, can be annoying to read, and while they seem like a no-brainer, many people put far too much weight on them. In fact, it’s easy to spend so much time stressing over the cover letter that you ultimately don’t even end up applying.

But, cover letters are also great! They give you an opportunity to hook someone in a way that your resume alone can’t usually do, and show that you’re not just an hour-clocking robot. (That is, unless a machine is sorting through the cover letters and resumes. In which case, this advice might help.)

I’ve gotten plenty of conflicting advice over the years about what to put in a cover letter, which doesn’t exactly paint the clearest picture for penning a successful one. Fast Company says to forget about them and beef up your resume. An old manager of mine said he loved receiving hard copies with handwritten notes. A friend of mine exclusively sends video cover letters. Some companies want you to buck the trend altogether and tell them a great story (ideally about you and your work). The more you think about it, a paper outline of your accomplishments accompanies by a formal letter really isn’t that interesting. Who’d want to read that?

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Is Anyone Listening?

The answer, it seems, is next to no one, and some hiring managers don’t even bother reading them. Katt Hancher, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, and Director of Human Resources at RCG, Inc., says she barely has time to read them. And that she’s not the only one in the industry that gives cover letters the cold shoulder.

“We were recently discussing this at a SHRM social. The consensus was that busy recruiters never read cover letters — no time.”

Instead, Hancher recommends crafting a compelling email when you send your materials over in the first place. Compelling — but short.

“You can say what needs to be said in the email sent when attaching your resume,” she explains. “I sometimes will request a focused cover [letter] in email form, when I need info frequently left off resumes.”

Cover Letters: TL;DR

While some industries will request that you not waste too much of their time with a cover letter (TL;DR), others will be happy to get a glimpse of your qualifications and personality. A great cover letter does both, while addressing why it’s all relevant to the position you’re applying for, and the company overall. Still, finding a character count-sensitive way to do this can be tricky — especially if you know you’re qualified, but don’t quite know how to express that.

Whichever way you slice it, cover letters are a mystery. But there are a few things you can do to make writing bespoke (and they should be bespoke) cover letters easier.

1. Read the job description carefully. And recognize that based on what you’re applying for, some of your experience might not matter as much. Be prepared to spin your smarts in a way that makes sense for this particular role. If you’re a programmer who doubles as a food editor, that’s great, but probably not worth mentioning in the cover letter for tech-oriented job.

2. Open with a strong first impression. Figure out who you’re writing to (LinkedIn is great for this!), introduce yourself, then contextualize your experience in the first paragraph. Give a brief statement of what you do, how you do it, and for how long you’ve done it. This paragraph should be the shortest of your cover letter.

3. Lead them on. Next, lead them to a list of points with something to the effect of, “Here’s why I think I’d be a great fit for your team.” Then address your main qualifications in an easy-to-scan, bulleted list. You should probably include any impressive impact or ROI figures, and call out the most important things you want them to know about you.

4. Organize your thoughts. The cover letter allows you space to use sentences and paragraphs, but do so sparingly. Odds are, the hiring manager is going to be reading through several (possibly hundreds) of cover letters. Make yours easy to read.

5. Play the game. Many companies use applicant tracking systems to skim through resumes and cover letters in search of specific keywords. These are usually outlined in the job description. It sucks to feel like you’re writing for a robot, but these days, you kind of are at first. Pull out keywords from the job posting that are relevant to your experience, and work them into your content.

6. Be specific. Why you? Why them? In your cover letter, you should have at least two good, solid, memorable reasons for wanting to work for the company to which you’re applying. Do you care about their social mission? Are you interested in working for the industry leader? Is there a particular client of theirs you love, or a campaign from the past year that you really admired? There’s obviously a reason you want to work for the company, so say so.

Tell Us What You Think

And here’s your chance to tell us that all of this advice is bologna! How do you handle cover letters? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? Tell us about it in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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