Between updating your resume and searching for open positions, the job hunt can be both a daunting and time-consuming endeavor. You may be tempted to skip the cover letter -- or even worse, send a templated cover letter -- it's imperative that you take full advantage of the unique opportunity to share your story.
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Below are just a few reasons why cover letters are critical to securing a first-round job interview, as well as some thoughts on how they can separate you from the competition.
Cover Letters Allow You to Express Yourself
Unless the job for which you are applying is in a creative field (e.g., designer, art director, etc.), your resume should not be the place to show off your personality. Save that for your cover letter.
When applying for a position, your resume should include facts and figures. Much of your resume will be composed of job titles and succinct data points (e.g., "I grew revenue by X percent in 2015"). Cover letters, on the other hand, are your opportunity to express yourself.
Your cover letter can show a company what type of person you are and what inspires you. It should tell the company how it will benefit from hiring you -- not what you want from the company. A Google search can tell employers things that they might find on your resume (i.e., awards, past jobs, education), but cover letters reveal information that employers may not be able to find online.
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Consequently, crafting a solid cover letter gives you the ability to impress the company with your writing skills, something that is valued in a wide variety of jobs. Not only does an eloquent cover letter build your personal brand, but it also shows your competence in matters of communication and style, thus increasing your chances of securing an interview.
A Great Cover Letter Sets You Apart
If you can capture the attention of the employer with a well-written and thoughtful cover letter, they will remember you -- especially if your tone and writing style appeals to them. The best cover letters show that you took time to research the company, position, industry, and ways you could contribute in that specific environment. Be sure to exhibit that you've done your research on both the company and the position, as this will be another differentiator when the employer is deciding upon which candidates will be given interviews.
On the other hand, submitting a boilerplate cover letter will, more often than not, result in your resume heading straight to the recycle bin. Do not assume that one vague cover letter will be sufficient for all applications, or that businesses will not be able to tell that you've used the same cover letter for multiple applications. You're better off not sending a cover letter at all than you are sending something generic.
Cover Letters Allow You to Make a Case for Yourself
If you found a job listing, prepared your resume, and researched the company, then, at this point in the process, you should know the characteristics, education, and job experiences the company is looking for in applicants. Cover letters allow you to make a case for yourself if you do not meet all the requirements.
Instead of avoiding the listed requirements that you do not possess, you can address them head-on. This is your chance to tell your story, to explain why you would be a good candidate for the position, and to win the company over.
For example, if you have held a variety of different jobs for short periods of time, worked nontraditional jobs, or lack experience, a cover letter could be incredibly helpful in securing an interview. If you are applying for a job but have no business experience, employers may be inclined to dismiss your application. However, you could explain in your cover letter that although you do not have business experience, you have lead a group of peers as the president of your sorority in college. This explanation could encourage employers to keep your resume in the stack of potential candidates.
Another example is if a company is looking for a future team member that has skills that you do not. Perhaps a company wants to hire a coder who knows a specific code language that you do not know. Instead of ignoring the requirement, you can explain in your cover letter that you know similar languages, or that you have taken a class in the specific language, therefore assuaging any doubt the company may have.
Do not think that employers will not notice your lack of experience or that you have an unrelated college degree. In fact, they will notice and will think that you applied without even reading the job posting at all.
If They Specifically Say 'No Cover Letters,' Then No Cover Letters
Although there are a lot of benefits to cover letters, some companies don't want them. If this is the case, then you do not have to submit a cover letter. Alternatively, if the company does not specify one way or the other, it never hurts to send a cover letter with your application.
Cover letters take a lot of time, but they are well worth it. Put in the extra effort to do the research, personalize each letter, and call out important position requirements, and you'll be happy with the results!
Meghann Isgan is an HR consultant working at One Click.