Every career adviser will tell you that when you prepare a resume, that you need accompany it with a personalized cover letter.
What exactly is a cover letter, anyway? It’s a one-page document that accompanies your resume, customized and addressed to the person whom you’re sending your credentials. Usually, it summarizes a few key accomplishments found in the resume, reiterates your excitement in the reader’s company and is 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 in reading your resume.
Cover letters were invented and became standard practice in the days when job applicants sent a resume to an employer as a letter by (get this!) the postal service. As in, paper mail. As in, you stick the resume and cover letter in a stamped envelope and drop it in one of those big blue boxes they used to have on every corner. The corporate mailroom would receive the envelope, it would mellow for a few days, and eventually the office delivery person would drop it in the recipient’s inbox (a physical tray which sits on the corner of a person’s desk, usually labeled “IN”) where it would sit for a couple more days. Eventually, the recipient would use a letter opener (a device which looks suspiciously like a dagger) to open the envelope, glance at the cover letter, and decide whether the resume was worth a read.
Got 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 postage and stationery - to send an application to an employer. I’m just saying that life wasn’t always better in the old days.
Times have indeed changed. People don’t apply for jobs the same way. In most cases, an applicant sees a job online and applies either through the corporate website or via a job board like Monster or LinkedIn. Often there isn’t even an opportunity to include a cover letter with your resume.
And here’s a dirty little secret of the recruiting world – most recruiters, who act as gatekeepers of the application process, don’t have the time or interest to read a cover letter. They usually take a look at first half of the first page of the resume and decide whether to keep reading. A cover letter, if included, is usually an afterthought. A nicety. An attachment, if you will.
And yet, there is a time and a place for a cover letter. It’s a valuable tool for certain situations, because it shows that you care.
A cover letter is appropriate – even essential - in the following situations:
- You are targeting a position in a specific company and you have the contact information of a particular individual or department. If you really, really want to work at Chester’s Advertising Agency, and you have the CEO’s contact information, you have a unique opportunity to make a positive impression. A cover letter allows you to show the passion for working at Chester.
- You are attending a career fair and want to stand out from the pack. You’ve done your research and identified five employers you would really, really like to work for. Handing the recruiters a cover letter customized to their company along with the resume would demonstrate that extra little bit of effort.
- Somebody has referred you to an individual at a company. Let’s say that your friend Moe provides you with the contact for their friend Homer who works at the nuclear power plant you’d like to work at. If you don’t include a cover letter with the resume, Homer might never figure out it was Moe that referred you. And you’d like to make Moe look good for referring you, wouldn’t you?
- You’re emailing a resume to a company. Sometimes job advertisements ask applicants to send an email resume. 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:
- You apply to a job through a company’s website or a job board. Often there’s not an opportunity to even include a cover letter. Even if you attach one, it’ll likely be ignored.
- You’re canvassing a job fair. You’ll come 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 for every exhibitor.
Either way, it’s best to be prepared. Have that cover letter ready, you never know when you’re going to 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. He is a Human Resources professional and staffing expert with almost two decades of in-house corporate HR and staffing firm experience, and is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW) and Certified Professional Career Coach (CPCC).
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.