One question that I’m frequently asked is “Does anyone read cover letters? And, if not, do I need to bother with one?” The short answers are it depends and yes.
Talk to a bunch of recruiters and pretty soon you will hear the same thing: they don’t read cover letters. But you still need one, and it needs to be customized for each job. The reason is simple: A great cover letter actually tells your story and tells the reader why you are someone they should consider for the job. Cover letters can tell the story your resume, by itself, can’t. For anyone who’s taken a nontraditional career path the ability to tell a story beyond the bounds of a resume is very important.
But how can they work their magic if no one bothers to read them? Well, the truth is that in a massive sea of really bad cover letters, the great ones truly do stand out. Every recruiter who’s told me she doesn’t read cover letters will admit that really great ones will catch her eye. The attached resumes usually get longer than the typical six seconds review, too. And while it’s true that cover letters can be particularly ineffective in the applicant tracking systems (ATS) that’s not the only time they come into play. If you have a contact at a company you should send your resume with a version of your cover letter to them directly. In a perfect world they may be able to pass it straight to the hiring manager. But even if your message gets forwarded into the HR department the cover letter is more likely to get read, giving you a chance to tell your story more effectively.
And, finally, there’s no way to know in advance whether the company you are applying to considers cover letters essential or not. You gotta include one, so you might as well make it a good one. Here are the elements that recruiters have told us makes for a great cover letter:
1. It tells the story your resume can’t. What is the thread that runs through your career? Come up with the 3-5 sentences that explain how you moved through your career and why the opportunity you are applying for makes sense in the overall story of your career.
2. It conveys the value you can bring to the position. This may be about a unique set of skills and experiences you have or it may be about the passion you have for the mission of the company you are applying to.
3. It articulates that you’ve done your research and you want to work for this company. Demonstrating your knowledge of the company and that your research has motivated you to want to work there is one of the most overlooked opportunities to make yourself stand out from the pack. There are often many, many candidates that are perfectly qualified to do a particular job. Someone who demonstrates enthusiasm for the company will be more highly rated that one who doesn’t. (Caveat to this tip: This doesn’t quite apply to the big brand companies that are the most sought after to work at. The people at Facebook know that everyone loves Facebook. You should talk about your interest in the company, of course, but don’t overplay it. They get it.)
4. It shows (a little) personality. In job searches it is never helpful to be too cute. But showing a bit of who you are as a person is really helpful in a cover letter. People hire people, not resumes. The cover letter is your first chance to show who you are.
Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.