Are cover letters actually necessary?
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Applicants don't know. Recruiters don't care. And hiring managers? Well, they seem to be divided on the issue.
But let's assume for a moment that you should, for any position to which you are applying, include a cover letter. If that letter is read by your future boss, what should it say?
For starters, it shouldn't look anything like these three scary examples from David Silverman over at Harvard Business Review:
"The recap: The resume in prose form. It's redundant, harder to read than the resume, and provides no additional insight.
"The form letter: This says, essentially, 'Dear Sir or Madam: I saw your ad in the paper and thought you might like me.' And it's clearly a form letter where maybe they got my name and company right. If they're lucky, I will still take the time to read their resume after being insulted with a form letter.
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"The 'I'm crazy': This one's rare, and it expands on the resume of experience with some personal insights. Examples range from the merely batty ('I find batik as an art form has taught me to become both a better person and project manager') to the truly terrifying ('I cast a pentagram hex and the central line pointed towards your job listing. I know you will find this as comforting as I do.')"
There is a 17 percent chance a hiring manager will read your cover letter. With one minute and one page, a candidate can make or break their chances of landing the job. Here's how to ace your cover letter, in case the hiring manager decides to read it:
Keep It Short
Cover letters should take no longer than a minute to read. Don't write a story. The hiring manager doesn't care about your childhood dreams or the death of the family dog. Leaders are busy people; don't burden them with wordy cover letters. Many applicants think that if they write long cover letters or use a lot of $10 MBA words, a leader will be impressed. They won't. If there is a shorter way to write it, do it.
As for what you should include: a personalized greeting ("To Whom It May Concern" is gross), your professional skills, and why you are a good fit for the company. If there is room, point out why the company is a good fit for your dreams. As the head of an agency that works exclusively with HR technology, I'd like to know if that's something that my applicants actually care about.
Do What I Say
Follow tradition and directions. Paper copies and Word documents are traditional, but email is far more popular in today's marketplace. If someone sent me a paper resume, I'd know immediately that they weren't a fit for Red Branch Media. Conversely, someone who sees my job posting and applies solely via Facebook instead of my career site is not going to be considered either.
Read the application to see whether the hiring manager prefers an email cover letter or some other form. Leaders notice if a candidate doesn't follow directions. The result: a quick rejection.
Hiring managers look for reasons to disqualify applicants quickly. They receive a lot of applications (an average of 250 resumes for every corporate opening!), and they can't possibly give them all the same amount of attention. So, they try to knock candidates out of the running as soon as they can.
Phrases like the aforementioned "to whom it may concern" and "the reason I left ..." are ways candidates eliminate themselves from the race. HR departments in large companies don't have time for candidates who don't at least personalize the salutation.
As Ash Arnett of musician's PR firm PARTICULAR explained to Smashing Magazine, "We trash generic inquiries (i.e. form letters) automatically. If you don;t care to put in a little effort to tailor your communication to my company I sure don't care to read it."
Typos, like generic statements, will automatically disqualify you from the candidate pool. Seventy-six percent of hiring managers will not look beyond the cover letter if they find typos or grammatical errors. These red flags lead the hiring manager to think the candidate does not pay attention to detail or simply didn't care enough to edit. Neither of those are sought-after qualities in an employee.
Give It a Little Personality
A well-written cover letter gives your resume some context. Leaders want clear and concise language. They want to know why a particular candidate wants to work for the company and why they are a good fit for the position.
Janet Albert of executive search firm Bridge Partners says, "The best [cover letters] let a bit of personality shine through, without being over the top ... but you really want to stick with how your experience lends itself to the job you're applying for."
Cover letters open the door for candidates. Leaders want to see thoughtfully written cover letters. This means covering all the bases as seen above while remembering that despite all your hard work, a leader may never take the time to read your letter. However, the ones who do will be very impressed!
A version of this article originally appeared on TalentCulture.
Maren Hogan is the chief marketing brain at Red Branch Media.