Cover Letters: Time of Death, 2009…

As I shared with many of you in my latest newsletter, I’m finally throwing in the towel — and yielding to the overwhelming evidence suggesting that cover letters (at least in their traditional form) are no longer an effective or important part of the modern job search process.

This may not seem like a big deal, to some, but for those out of work this is a “tectonic” development with significant implications.  The reason?  The process of drafting cover letters tends to suck up hours and hours of time each week from the average job hunter’s efforts, and if nobody is reading these masterpieces, this time and energy can be invested much more productively somewhere else.  Additionally, many people despise the process of writing such letters, and will save themselves considerable psychic anguish if they are “absolved” from having to write these pieces for each and every resume submission.

I realize, of course, that I’m somewhat late to the party (at least among career coaching circles) in arriving at this conclusion.  There have been a number of articles, blog postings, and other pieces published over the last few years where knowledgeable folks have expressed their belief that cover letters have lost their luster.  In general, however, I tend to be wary of “faddish” career advice and wanted to make sure that the sudden anti-letter sentiment wasn’t simply being used by some folks as a form of shock value to raise the anxiety level of job seekers and sell more services.  After hearing a number of my recruiting friends mention that they never, ever read cover letters from job candidates anymore, however, followed by several of my HR acquaintances echoing this same sentiment, I started to believe the hype — and to examine whether my coaching philosophy on this issue had exceeded its shelf-life.

It was at that point, too, that I took matters into my own hands and started asking every hiring manager I came into contact with whether they felt the cover letter added any real value to the job application process.  In what was nearly a clean sweep, virtually every single one of them said “Honestly, no.  I don’t read the letters.  I just go right to the resume and it tells me what I need to know.”

So if the evidence is to be believed, job hunters should seriously curtail their letter-writing efforts and channel most of their writing mojo (including some serious customization) into the resume presentation itself.  The resume now needs to stand completely on its own two feet in terms of communicating your fit for a particular opportunity — and must clearly indicate your top qualifications for the role at hand, ideally through a list of 8-10 bullets near the top of the first page.  One size most definitely does not fit all, anymore.  You need to demonstrate to each employer, within a few seconds, that you have the exact set of skills they’re looking for if you want to land in the “interview” pile.

As for whether you should send any kind of covering document with your resume, well, it stands to reason that you have to say at least a little something about why you’re submitting your credentials to a given employer.  You can’t just send your resume ala carte and assume employers will know what to do with it.  So my advice to job hunters, going forward, will be that you e-mail your resume to employers using a crystal-clear subject line (e.g. “Resume of John Smith, Accounting Manager”) accompanied by a short one- or two-paragraph e-mail note explaining why you’re writing and perhaps highlighting one key thought or attention-grabbing statement of why you’d be a great fit for the job in question.

Along these lines, here are three types of “killer thoughts” you might consider highlighting in your e-mail cover note:

1)  A very specific, interesting reason as to why the job in question appeals to you

Example: “While I’ve applied to a number of inside sales jobs in the past few weeks, I was instantly drawn to your company’s advertisement because of your statement that you want somebody who openly embraces cold-calling as a way of driving revenue.  Trust me, this won’t be a problem should you end up adding me to your team.  I’ve got zero problem picking up the phone and reaching out to qualified customers — my last boss, in fact, commented that he never once had to worry about me violating his ‘no whining’ policy when it came to having to make such calls.”

2)  A very specific, interesting reason as to why the company in question appeals to you

Example: “Given current economic conditions, I’d imagine that numerous candidates are submitting their resume for this opportunity.  I’d like to emphasize, however, that I’m particularly drawn to Escapia due to the fact that I used to run a bed and breakfast, myself, and therefore have a detailed understanding of the tourism industry and its terminology.  So while I suppose my accounting skills could translate into just about any organization, I’d love the chance to get back into a company like your own that relates so closely to my interests and caters to my former peers in the hospitality world.”

3)  A very specific, interesting qualification that differentiates you from other candidates

Example: “As you’ll note from my resume, my experience to date touches upon almost every single one of the specific skills and qualifications requested in your advertisement.  On top of these credentials, however, I’d also emphasize that I helped my previous employer complete a major SAP installation just six short months ago — and that this entire process, including lessons learned, is completely fresh in my mind and ready to be brought to bear on your company’s pending SAP implementation effort.”

The statements above are obviously not intended to represent the entire e-mail note you’d send in response to an advertisement, of course, but should give you a flavor of the types of “zinger lines” that you can incorporate to help your submission stand out.  Will you win ’em all?  Probably not, if employers these days are as militant as they claim about focusing solely on the resume document.  But at least you won’t need to channel tons of time into writing formal, fully-formatted letters of the old-fashioned variety any longer.  And if you DO manage to catch the employer’s eye with your short e-mail missive, there’s no question that it can still tip the scales in your favor.

The key?  Just don’t make them open any extra attachments or go through the apparently arduous task of scrolling down in their e-mail browser… 🙂

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One Response to “Cover Letters: Time of Death, 2009…”

  1. Richard McLeland-Wieser May 14, 2009 at 3:47 pm

    Regarding cover document; think Hemingway, not Joyce. Brevity is best. Your cover document is a sales brochure. Flowery prose will not work. Here is example of a cover document I recently used to apply at a construction company. I followed this with four bullet points highlighting my successes.

    “There is no blueprint to business development. It requires skill and high quality materials. Start with a good foundation of research and organization. Build the walls with listening, writing and people skills. Add the mechanical systems of perseverance and humor. Finish with a nice layer of experience. I’ve built may career with this method. Perhaps I can help you build your company.”

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