Including a Cover Letter: the Do’s and Don’ts
A friend of mine asked me to look over a job application for him. I opened his documents and shrieked “YOUR COVER LETTER IS THREE PAGES LONG!!” He protested that the job advertisement had a long list of specific skills and attributes and he felt he had to address each in detail. I argued that it was too long and he needed to summarise. We compromised and ended up with two pages, but I was still somewhat grumpy about this. He said, “If the cover letter is just a short summary of the resume rather than a stand alone guide to your suitability for the role, what’s the point of it?!”
Hmmm, I pondered. Good point, I thought.
I decided to ask the recruiters here their thoughts on cover letters, and do you know what, even in a recruitment agency as tightknit and small as ours there was no consensus. This made me think that running through the main arguments for and against would be a useful exercise.
The popular argument for cover letters is that cover letters can and have convinced hiring managers and recruiters that inexperienced (or similarly disadvantaged) job seekers were worth hiring.
If you have a look you can find lots and lots of blogs about cover letters that got people their dream jobs, like this one, this one and this one. The first example is a letter written that clearly shows a passion for the subject, the second is funny and the last is an example of a cover letter that is really friendly. These examples show different approaches and they all work pretty well.
What you need to be aware of here, though, is that these people could not have written such good cover letters if they were not already good candidates for the roles they were applying for. Cover letters aren’t magic. Even this example, a cover letter that went viral for its ‘honesty’ was written by someone who might have got the internship no matter what.
However, they do show that cover letters can make great first impressions. Remember how in this post I said that if you were good on the phone that you should use that skill? If you’re a good, clear writer, use that skill to get a job you want. However, if you’re a bad writer, is there any point writing a cover letter, I hear you ask, which brings me to…
The popular argument against cover letters, which is that nobody – repeat, nobody – looks at cover letters and the hype surrounding them is B.S.
In this blog, the writer suggests that, “99.44% of the information about cover letters is useless…most people assume that the cover letter is actually read before the resume. Wrong…just ask anyone who reviews resumes, they go straight to the resume (if it’s read at all) and only look at the cover letter if they’re still interested.” Similarly, this blog suggests cover letters should be ditched because they’re pointless and old fashioned. I don’t think either arguments are completely true. It’s definitely arguable that your intro email can serve the same purpose as a cover letter. However, I think the suggestion that cover letters are so antiquated that you look unemployable if you include one is taking it too far.
Recruiters and hiring managers will probably look at your resume from a database or through your electronic application. It’s just as easy to look at a cover letter as it is to look at a resume on a database. When keywords are used to search that database it doesn’t matter if the keywords are in your resume or your email or your cover letter, as long as you use them.
The truth is, some people and some companies, love a cover letter. Just like some people like knitting and wearing tweed, writing letters will never completely go out of style.
My argument is that there is absolutely no way that you can know beforehand if you are sending your job application off to someone who loves, hates or feels indifferent towards cover letters, so you’re going to have to cover all your bases.
If you want to put in a good application, try to tailor your resume for each job, write a friendly cover letter that’s laden with leads for the reader, and it’s also an excellent idea to have a good and up to date LinkedIn or an online resume on a site like re.vu. The secret is to create each part of your application in the knowledge that the person who receives it might not look at the other parts.
Well give us some tips on writing good cover letters, then, I hear you complain. Here’s the do’s and don’ts;
DO use bullet points if you would like to.
DON’T get caught up in making your cover letter really formal but don’t be ridiculous either, it’s a job application not a stand up routine. Don’t say things like ‘Hey Cowboy’ (yes I have seen that). Yes, yes, I know that one of the examples above is a ‘funny’ cover letter but one person’s funny is another’s “this guy is a dickhead” so be careful.
DO use your intro email as your cover letter instead of having a separate document, if you want to.
DON’T address your cover letter to Dear Sir. If you don’t know the person who will receive the application by name, say Hiring Manager. I hate to get all femmo on you (I don’t really) but just because someone is in a position of authority doesn’t mean they’re a man and assuming that makes you look backwards.
DO rely on boring tradition when in doubt. A good template is to greet the reader, give a statement to your suitability for the role, tell them that you will contact them or that you look forward to them contacting you, and then sign off.
At 10collective, some of our team doesn’t bother with cover letters and some look at them before resumes whenever they’re sent. We reckon that if you want to write one, you should.