Recently the Wall Street Journal published the article, Job Hunters Take A Stand: We’re Not Writing Cover Letters. While truly a sign of the Great Resignation in our post-COVID world, the opinion of some job seekers doesn’t necessarily mean that cover letters are dead or don’t have their place in a smart and savvy job search.
We surveyed resume writers and career coaches on LinkedIn to take the temperature of cover letter creation industry-wide and numerous recruiters, employers, and even job seekers also jumped in to share their opinion.
The topic definitely created a heated debate, which frankly did not surprise us as cover letters are known to both attract and repel. I’ll withhold my opinion to the end though!
Poll results with 335 votes:
Did your head just explode?
We’ve got roughly 25% who say they are a must, 25% who say they are a don’t, and half who say it depends on the situation….
Luckily there are comments from the voters!
Here are a few interesting threads with a recruiter and an HR professional who are pro-cover letter:
Note that we have blacked out anyone’s name/picture who is not a CDI member having given us permission. You can view the entire poll discussion on LinkedIn here.
and from an HR Pro:
My choice of quotes to share are not meant to support that all recruiters and HR professionals want and love cover letters.
When you review all the comments, which I urge you to do, you will rapidly recognize that just as many who love cover letters find them a waste of time, energy, and space. Actually, more dislike them by far, but there’s a reason!
Cover letters get a bad rep simply because so many people are using them the wrong way. It shouldn’t be a flaccid recap of your skills or a generic “pick me” inquiry.
If you were into hiring and recruiting and that’s what you received all day, you’d hate having to read them as well!
But those of us who are pro cover letters KNOW the power that a well written cover letter can wield in getting someone excited to want to read more about the candidate.
It has nothing to with the fact that resume writers and career coaches are paid for them either. It has EVERYTHING to do with the fact that a well-written cover letter can get someone excited.
Look at it like this:
If someone doesn’t want to read your cover letter, they can just skip it. Period. No harm done unless perhaps you wrote terribly for an editor’s role or shared personal data you shouldn’t have shared.
If someone expects a cover letter as part of the decision making process, they can just skip your resume altogether. Period. Lots of harm done if you seriously wanted to be considered for that position.
One resume writer and career coach sums it up perfectly:
“If you have it and the recruiter doesn’t care, you are good. If you don’t have it and the recruiter cares, you are in trouble. So, have it!”
I’ve always 100% taken up the philosophy that I’d rather they ignored/pitched my cover letter than ignored/pitched my resume because it didn’t have a cover letter!
A cover letter is a marketing document and it CAN make a big difference when you take the time to write it effectively.
Consider these experiences and advice from award-winning resume writers:
In fact, many who were even in the “it depends” camp had similar reasons such as:
“A well-written note of interest will never hurt you, but can help you. If there are considerations it is better to address up front, a note or brief letter is a must.” – Career Pro
“In my opinion they’re really old fashioned and mostly unnecessary, with that said a well written cover letter can make a difference if you’re making a radical change and give you a chance to explain the why.” – Job Seeker
“I feel cover letters are important yet it depends on the situation. Badly written cover letters are out but I think if carefully crafted the cover letter allows the applicant to explain things that cannot be outlined in their resume eg. what attracts them to the company, gaps in employment, why they feel the company is a great fit for them personally etc.” – Career Coach
You Can’t Please All of the People All of the Time
If you’ve taken the time to skim the comments you will recognize that you’ll never make everyone happy! But hopefully you’ll come out of it with a compelling understanding of why cover letters still exist and how they can help job seekers to stand out from the competition, with a little time, care, and all-important targeting!
Cover Letter Tips
CDI offers an amazing 10-page best practices tip sheet in our member’s library, Do Job Seekers Need Cover Letters? How to Write & Price Them for Win-Win Success.
Here is some strategy from that resource:
Cover Letter Customization
A cover letter would not be a cover letter if it is not customized or customizable; hence, all industry professionals agree that the cover letter must be tailored or able to be tailored to a job posting. But how can a candidate submit a “custom” cover letter to multiple jobs? Is there a way to leave your client a formula to tweak the cover letter on their own? Here is what industry professionals suggest:
- Offer the client insight for tweaking the cover letter or e-note to different jobs.
- Develop a template for the client to use for creating future cover letters.
- Create a Cover Letter Cheat Sheet with best practices and tips on customizing the letter.
- Offer coaching sessions to the client on targeting steps to tweak the cover letter to different jobs.
E-notes versus cover letters: what’s the difference?
Whether the e-note is used in lieu of a cover letter or complement one, they serve an important function in the modern job search since email is now the primary form of business communication.
An e-note is a highly condensed introduction and unique value proposition composed as the body of an email. The e-note is especially effective when sent directly to the hiring manager, decision maker, or a networking contact with the resume attached. E-notes can also be leveraged when reaching out to a recruiter or requesting an informational interview.
Many industry professionals have greater success with e-notes than cover letters and find the e-note is read more often than the cover letter.
The primary difference between an e-note and a cover letter is the length, with e-notes being significantly shorter. The e-note should include a powerful subject line that incorporates keywords relevant to the job and that catches the reader’s interest. A high-impact subject line also eliminates the need for a lengthy opener, so the body of the email can get right to the point.
E-notes highlight the most pertinent and valuable qualifications, experiences, and other important qualities the job seeker offers. They are typically not as formal as a cover letter but should still abide by the expected email etiquette with pleasantries and a quick “sell” on flagging or opening the resume.
Another key difference is the method in which e-notes are submitted. Traditional cover letters tend to take a more formal approach. They are formatted with a letterhead at the top, including the name of the reader, company name, address, and other relevant contact info, much more typical of what you would see for a typical business letter.
Suppose the job seeker is uploading a cover letter and resume in response to an online posting. In that case, a traditional cover letter that matches the branding elements of the resume will be much more visually appealing than a plain text message format that you see with the e-note. Also, for executive-level candidates, the traditional letter may work best due to its formality and more customary presentation.
Cover letter formatting is dependent, to some degree, on the unique client you’re working with, the industry they’re in, and how the job description is worded.
Our industry professionals shared their best practices and favorite formats, including:
- Composing a punchy, right-to-the-point introductory paragraph.
- Highlighting key skills in the body of the cover letter with supporting achievements or stories.
- Creating a short list of bullets, with each bullet providing evidence of a competency/requirement.
- Featuring an impressive testimonial to demonstrate performance and gain a creative edge.
- Limiting the use of strange fonts, graphics, tables, or columns that may not be scanned properly by ATS.
- Applying adequate white space to present a crisp, clean, and easy to read format.
Many industry professionals noted that compiling a two-column comparison with the “you need” on the left and the “I have” on the right―otherwise known as a “T chart or T-letter”―is a more effective way to present the job seeker’s best accomplishments related to the targeted position.
Another way to break up content is to create attention-grabbing and easy-to-scan topic headings.
Category headers might be, “HOW I EXCEED QUOTAS 25+% YOY” or “WHY I HAVE WON TOP INDUSTRY HONORS 8 OUT OF THE LAST 9 YEARS.”
No matter the layout, all industry professionals agree that the most critical factor in effective formatting is breaking up the “wall of words” to enhance readability.
Key topics to address
When it comes to cover letter content, relevance is always the guide. The role and the company research should dictate the specific topics job seekers address in their cover letters. Careful examination of the job advertisement, company mission, vision, and values, and their products or services will allow you to get at the crux of what’s important so you can highlight why your client is the right fit for the role.
The cover letter should not repeat or summarize information in the resume. Instead, the content should demonstrate an understanding of the hiring managers’ problems and how the job seeker has provided solutions to similar pain points.
Here are the three main components that most industry professionals agree on:
Make a connection. Cut right to the chase and explain how the job seeker can provide solutions to the employer’s problems. This is of primary importance to decision makers and will resonate with them right away. Additionally, the job seeker can address the “why” behind their passion and interest for the role, industry, or company. This is where they can demonstrate their knowledge of company goals and make a personal connection with the reader.
Address specific needs. Provide examples of the expertise, unique skills, value, and achievements related to the career focus and employer’s goals. This section explains how their experience and accomplishments match what they are looking for and demonstrate their abilities through education/certifications and soft skills.
This information can be presented in one or two brief body paragraphs or as a series of bullets that emphasize stated needs, such as numerical achievements related to the industry. The key is to provide “proof” that the job seeker meets all the requirements and has what it takes to excel in the role.
Persuade the reader to take action. The closing of the cover letter should provide a brief overview of the value the candidate will bring to the employer and have a call to action. This allows the letter to end in a way that keeps the conversation going.
The cover letter’s goal is to signal the candidate’s unique value proposition, reinforce their brand, emphasize their suitability for the position, and ultimately, present a solution to the employer’s problem.
How to grab the reader’s attention
A strong hook at the beginning of a cover letter will prompt the recipient to keep reading. While showing one’s value is the best way to capture attention, many writers recommended some unique and complementary methods to pique interest:
Drop a name. Don’t underestimate the strength of social obligation in a job search. With this approach, you can provide the name of the referring person or a mutual connection, but make sure they are comfortable with the job seeker doing so. This approach can also explain the job seeker’s relationship to the organization and describe their motivation for applying for the job, for example, a family legacy in the company or industry and a desire to carry that legacy forward.
Cite recent company news. Was the company recognized recently? Including a congratulations to a recent accomplishment will communicate that the client is up to date on the company’s goings-on and sincerely interested in the company. If the reader was recently quoted in a publication, mentioning the quote in the cover letter can create a connection between the job seeker and the reader.
Start with a question. Asking a question grabs employer’s attention regarding the candidate’s unique value and offerings while meeting the company’s strategic objectives. For example, “Are you seeking a Client Service Operations Manager with a passion for innovation and proven track record in driving high customer satisfaction?”
Have a little fun. Keep the cover letter very people-friendly and draw out personality while upselling qualifications. This approach is unique because many cover letters repeat qualifications in a mundane manner and do not bring out the client’s personality. For example, rather than start a cover letter with the typical “I’d love to join your team” mantra, change things up and begin with the likes of, “Your team motto rocks!”
Addressing challenges and career changes
Here is an example of one I wrote for a blue collar family member making a career change that would involve a lower salary, yet an improved quality of life. The job seeker wanted to stop scaring employers away when his resume and letter were part of a mandatory online application that asked for salary. Going from a well-paid courier position to a warehousing role in an aerospace company was the goal.
Check out the third paragraph for how I inserted transferrable skills, overcame the pay and career change hurdle, mentioned the company, and knew what buttons to push:
Dear Prospective Employer:
When I saw your advertisement for a Receiving Clerk I knew I needed to apply right away.
With an entire career dedicated to the receiving, stocking and disbursement of material and equipment in both transportation and warehousing arenas, I can seamlessly step into your open position. Further, as my included reference letters will attest, I am a loyal and committed worker who doesn’t slack and is always looking for a better, faster and more efficient way to meet company goals.
While I understand you are seeking someone with minimal experience, I want to assure you that my qualifications and background are not indicative of someone who isn’t going to stick. I am very lucky to be in a position where financial compensation doesn’t have to be my goal, but rather quality of life can be. I left a rewarding career with FedEx fully intent on knowing I would be starting over to stay in the profession I am passionate about. I’m looking for a DOD contractor who would benefit from my skills in a logistics/materials capacity, and <Company Name> is exactly where I want to be. In exchange, you give me a chance to get out of a truck 8-10 hours a day in the Florida heat and stop having to work national holidays. Can you imagine working Christmas Eve and Mother’s Day every year?
I’m confident you won’t find a more personable, hard-working individual to join your team in your warehouse. I’d love to meet with you and any leaders of the team to show you just how committed and effective I can be.
If you are ready to consider a talented professional who matches your position, please contact me at your convenience.
Thank you for your consideration.
Did it work? As part of the resume and application process, it did the trick. His dream company called him before he was even out of the parking lot after the interview to make him an offer at the top of the job’s pay range. He also was able to entertain more than one offer.
Job Seekers, Cover Letters Feel Like a Pain But Can Pay Off
I know you don’t want to write them. It’s not fair that job seekers get saddled with such a burden of not only being the best at what they do but having to sell themselves on paper (digital) and in person when looking for work.
It’s all a part of marketing your product – you!
If you don’t want to struggle with these documents, there are talented professionals out there to assist you, the same as hiring a mechanic, plumber, or even a dentist. Some jobs you just can’t do best yourself!
Career Pros, Don’t Say No to Cover Letters
You aren’t doing a disservice to your clients when you help them to craft powerful, targeted cover letters!
This is a skill you need to help them position themselves for success.