Any career adviser will tell you that when you prepare a resume, that you need accompany it with a personalized cover letter.
For the uninitiated – a cover letter is a one-page document that accompanies your resume, and is tailored and addressed to the person to whom you’re sending your credentials. Usually, it summarizes a few key accomplishments found in the resume, reiterates your excitement in the position, and is generally intended to impress.
If the resume is your personal brochure, then the cover letter is the brochure for the brochure. In essence, the cover letter is the pitch to the reader why they should invest the time reading your resume.
Cover letters were invented and became standard practice in the days when job applicants sent a resume to an employer through (if you can believe it) the postal service. As in, you stuck the resume and cover letter in a stamped envelope and dropped it in one of those big blue mailboxes that used to sit on every corner. The corporate mail room would receive your envelope, it would mellow for a few days, and eventually the office clerk would drop it in the recruiter's inbox (an actual, physical tray which sat on the corner of a person’s desk), and it would then sit for a couple more days. Eventually, the recruiter would open the envelope, glance at the cover letter, and decide whether the resume was worth a read.
Did you get all that?
Incidentally, next time you complain about how nobody gets back to you the resume you sent to Company X, keep in mind that it used to cost real money – in both postage and stationery – to send a resume to an employer. Life wasn’t always better in the old days.
Times have indeed changed. These days, when applying to a job you'll apply by sending your resume through the corporate website or on a job board. Often, there isn’t an opportunity to include a cover letter.
Here’s a dirty little secret of the recruiting world – most recruiters, gatekeepers of the application process, don’t have the time or interest to read your cover letter. They usually spend a few seconds looking at top of the first page of the resume and then decide whether or not to keep reading. A cover letter, if included at all, is usually an afterthought. A nicety.
And yet, there is a time and a place for a cover letter. It can be a valuable tool for certain situations.
A cover letter is appropriate – even essential - in the following situations:
- You're targeting a position within a specific company and have the contact information for a specific individual or department. If you really, really want to work at Chester’s Advertising Agency, and you have the contact information for the CEO (named Chester, in case you were wondering), you have an opportunity to make a positive, memorable impression.
- You are attending a career fair and want to stand out from the pack. You’ve done your research, identifying five employers whom you would really, really like to work for. Handing the recruiters at the career fair a customized cover letter with your resume would demonstrate an extra bit of effort in a crowded field.
- Somebody has referred you to an individual at an employer. Let’s say that your friend provides you with the contact for their friend, Joe, who works at the power plant. If you don’t include a cover letter with the resume, Joe might never figure out that you were personally referred and your resume will be just another in the stack.
- You’re emailing a resume to a company. Sometimes job advertisements ask applicants to send a resume by email . In the body of the email you should have something to say. A cover letter – even a brief one – helps interest the recipient.
A cover letter doesn’t matter so much when:
- Applying to a job through a company’s website or a job board. Often there’s not an opportunity to even include a cover letter. But if the job description specifically asks for a cover letter, you better darn well include it or risk being passed over for failing to follow instructions.
- You’re canvassing a job fair. You’ll stumble across a great number of employers you’ve never considered. They won’t expect a cover letter, and it would be impractical to provide one to every exhibitor.
Either way, it’s best to be prepared. Have that cover letter ready. You never know when you’ll need it.
Scott Singer is the President and Founder of Insider Career Strategies Resume Writing & Career Coaching, a firm dedicated to guiding job seekers and companies through the job search and hiring process. Insider Career Strategies provides resume writing, LinkedIn profile development, and career coaching services, including a free resume review. You can email Scott Singer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via the website, www.insidercs.com.