Cover letters, are they necessary?

Applicants don’t know. Recruiters don’t care. And leaders? Well, leaders seem to be divided on the issue. But let’s assume for a moment that you should, in any position for which you are applying, include a cover letter. If it IS read by your future boss, what should it say?

Not these three scary examples from David Silverman over at Harvard Business Reviewc:

The recap: The résumé in prose form. It’s redundant, harder to read than the résumé, and provides no additional insight.

The form letter:
 This says, essentially, “Dear Sir or Madam: I saw your ad in the paper and thought you might like me.” And it’s clearly a form letter where maybe they got my name and company right. If they’re lucky, I will still take the time to read their résumé after being insulted with a form letter.

The “I’m crazy”: 
This one’s rare, and it expands on the résumé of experience with some personal insights. Examples range from the merely batty (“I find batik as an art form has taught me to become both a better person and project manager.”) to the truly terrifying (“I cast a pentagram hex and the central line pointed towards your job listing. I know you will find this as comforting as I do.”)

There is a 17% chance a hiring manager will read a cover letter. With one minute and one page, a candidate can make or break their chances at employment. Here’s how to ace that 1 in 5 (roughly) chance.

Keep it Short

Cover letters should be no longer than about one minute. Don’t write a story. The hiring manager won’t care about childhood dreams or the time the family dog died. Leaders are busy people; don’t burden them with a wordy cover letter. Many applicants think if they are verbose or use those ten dollar MBA words, a leader will be impressed. They won’t. If there is a shorter way to write it, do it.

What to make sure you DO include: A personalized greeting (To Whom It May Concern is gross), professional skills, and why the candidate is a good fit for the company. If there is room, point out why the company is a good fit for your dreams. As the head of an agency that works exclusively with HR Technology, I’d like to know if that’s something that my applicants actually care about.

Do What I Say

Follow the tradition and follow directions. A paper copy or word document form of a cover letter is the norm, but email is far more popular in today’s marketplace. I would know instantly if someone sent in their paper resume that they are not a fit for Red Branch Media. Conversely, someone who sees my job posting and applies solely via Facebook instead of my career site, is not going to be considered either.

Many larger companies use an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). The ATS will read an email and analyze it for keywords and leverage phrases. Roughly 50% of mid-size companies use some form of ATS. Read the application to see whether the hiring manager prefers an email cover letter or another form. Leaders notice if a candidate doesn’t follow directions. The result: a quick rejection from the talent pool.

Pay Attention

Hiring managers look for reasons to disqualify applicants quickly simply due to the amount of applications they receive (an average of 250 resumes for every opening!) Phrases like the aforementioned “to whom it may concern” and “the reason I left…” are ways candidates eliminate themselves from the race. HR departments in large companies spend an average 6-15 seconds looking at a cover letter. They don’t have time for candidates who don’t at least personalize the salutation.

“We trash generic inquiries (i.e. form letters) automatically. If you don’t care to put in a little effort to tailor your communication to my company I sure don’t care to read it,” says Ash Arnett from PARTICULAR.

PROOFREAD

Typos, like generic statements, will automatically remove talent from the candidate pool. Seventy-six percent of hiring managers will not look beyond the cover letter to the resume if there is a typo or grammatical error. These red flags lead the hiring manager to think the candidate does not pay attention to detail or simply didn’t care enough to edit. Neither of those are qualities leaders look for in talent.

Personality?

A well-written cover letter prepares the hiring manager for the resume and gives the resume context.  Leaders want to see clear and concise language. They want to know why a particular candidate wants to work for the company and why they are a good fit for the position.

Janet Albert says, “The best ones let a bit of personality shine through, without being over-the-top… but you really want to stick with how your experience lends itself to the job you’re applying for.”

Cover letters open the door for candidates. Leaders want to see thoughtfully written cover letters. This means covering all the bases as seen above while remembering that despite all your hard work, a leader may never take the time to read it. However, the ones who DO, will be very impressed!

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