|  September 18, 2012

Some thoughts on cover letters

I love hearing from The Prepary readers out there about what they’d like to hear about and thanks so much for bringing up the topic of cover letters.  You may have noticed in my 30+ posts so far, there hasn’t been a mention of cover letters. While it was definitely not on purpose, I think they haven’t appeared as a topic because they’ve never been top of mind for me.  Are they necessary?  Sometimes, it depends.  Are they the most important part of your application?  Probably not.  Here are a few high level thoughts on cover letters.  This is my opinion only (so don’t take it as overarching advice – every company is different) but hopefully it will help you understand how some recruiters out there may think about them.

  1. The body of an email is “the new cover letter”
    • Back in the day when the main way to submit an application was by mail or fax (vs. digitally) it makes total sense that you would want to provide some context around your candidacy and interest other than what was on your resume.  I think the true purpose of the cover letter is to do just that.  The goal should be to prove that you (and your experience) are a good fit for the company and that you’ve done your diligence and know why that is.  If you are emailing a recruiter, you are better off putting those thoughts in the body of the email and attaching your resume only.  Those thoughts are much more likely to be read that way.
  2. When applying online, might as well include one
    • If you are applying through a system and don’t have a point of contact, do include a cover letter.  I have to say, most resumes in a system get screened through in about 20-30 seconds and the cover letter won’t  get read (it’s all about efficiency).  However, I’ve definitely been on the fence before about a resume and do go to the cover letter next to further investigate.
  3. No cover letter is better than a generic cover letter
    • If your cover letter doesn’t thoughtfully articulate why you are a good candidate for that company specifically, it doesn’t really make an impact at all.  When I read a cover letter that can be copied and pasted 100 times, it just screams “lazy” to me.  You don’t want any part of your application to “scream lazy” (obviously).  We’ll write more on this point in the future and talk about how to create a great, customized, letter.
  4. Companies will generally ask for one they want one
    • If a company asks specifically for a cover letter as part of their application instructions, definitely take some time to write one.  If there is no specific point in the application process where it asks for one, it is probably ok to skip it.  Other non-resume materials are becoming a lot more common (i.e. a portfolio, work sample, even a video introduction in some cases!)
  5. Keep em short, keep em customized
    • Adding to point 3, customization is key, but be brief.  Recruiters tend to be absolutely inundated with applications and don’t want to spend time reading a lengthy letter.  Intro yourself, explain why you are applying, why you are qualified (and why you’re a great person overall) and explain why your background is a good fit for the company/role.  That’s pretty much it.
  6. Proofread!
    • The worst offense I tend to see on cover letters is accidentally not replacing the company name.  This used to happen all the time when I worked at JPMorgan (JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley tend to confuse people, I get it).  If you have the wrong company name in your cover letter because you didn’t proofread, it’s pretty much over.  Some people who read cover letters are sticklers about less drastic errors.  Read it over at least 3 times and send it to someone else to proofread as well.
We’ll have another post coming up about creating a solid cover letter.  While in some senses I believe new technology and trends will replace the need for cover letters, they won’t disappear right away and may be an important part of your application.  Have specific questions about cover letters?  Let me know and I’ll address it in an upcoming post!
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