I’ve recruited for over 15 years, and I almost never read my candidates’ cover letters. The one exception was when I knew the hiring manager read the cover letter because then I wanted to see how our feedback compared. Matching up on our feedback would help me adjust my screening going forward. Otherwise, the cover letter had no use to me, and I know many other recruiters and employers feel the same way.
HOWEVER, as a career coach, I strongly encourage all my job seeking clients to draft a powerful cover letter. While the majority of people in the hiring process don’t read the cover letter, those that read it really care about it. Since you will never know in advance of sending your cover letter whether or not it will matter, you have to assume it will matter and take great care with your cover letter. Here are other 3 reasons why a cover letter, even if you’re not sure anyone reads it, can help you be a better job seeker:
Writing the cover letter forces you to highlight what really matters.The cover letter is in prose so can speak to the reader differently than the list structure of a resume. A cover letter doesn’t have to be chronological like a resume so you can talk about things in a different order or emphasize different points in your career. Finally, a cover letter is highly selective, not a grand overview of your entire career like the resume. You want to be brief with your cover letter, so you can only talk about a few things. What are the 2, 3, or 4 things across the entirety of your skills, expertise and background that you want the prospective employer to know? When you make these choices and commit them to paper, this helps your networking, interviewing, and overall positioning in your job search.
The cover letter can say what a resume cannot. You can emphasize a specific time in your career, set of skills or expertise. You can draw parallels between diverse experiences. You can explain an employment gap, put a structure behind non-traditional career choices, or otherwise make your case for the uniqueness of your career. A good cover letter tells a story that directs the reader to where you want him or her to focus.
You can speak directly to an individual reader. It is unrealistic to have a tailored resume for every type of job that you are seeking. Even if you wanted to spend the time, the structure of a resume has limits on what you can customize. A cover letter, on the other hand, can easily accommodate items directly related to the reader. You can demonstrate what you know about your prospective employer’s organization or industry. You can talk about why you want to work there. You can itemize your specific contributions relevant to that one employer.
Here is a 5-minute video about a successful cover letter. It’s about a candidate applying to a media property of Time Warner and is the only cover letter I’ve ever seen in my 15 years of recruiting that I can attribute to getting someone hired.
Caroline Ceniza-Levine helps people find fulfilling and financially-rewarding career paths, as the co-founder of SixFigureStart®, career coaching by former Fortune 500 recruiters. She is the co-author of “Six Steps To Job-Search Success” 2011, Flat World Knowledge and co-host of the upcoming90-Day Challenge. She is also a stand-up comic with Comic Diversity. Caroline welcomes your comments and questions.