by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
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Twenty years ago, my partner and I wrote one of the first cover-letter books on the market, and since then we’ve written countless articles on cover letters — as well as cover letters themselves. My views haven’t wavered much in those two decades on the guidelines we wrote about all those years ago.
But recently, I’ve received a couple of condescending messages from readers that suggest my views are hopelessly out of date, especially my strong edict that a cover letter should be addressed to a specific, named individual. The people who wrote to me suggested that in these days of submitting resumes and cover letters through job boards, discovering the name of the hiring decision-maker to write to is nearly impossible, and that these employers neither want to be addressed personally nor followed up with after resume and cover-letter submission.
So I wondered if this advice and other guidelines we’d espoused all these years were indeed antiquated. I conducted e-mail interviews with hiring decision-makers — crowdsourcing, if you will — to find out. The research was neither quantitative nor scientific but provides a meaningful snapshot of some key employer opinions.
I also talked only with hiring decision-makers who read and value cover letters. Studies over the past several years suggest that somewhere between a third and half of hiring decision-makers do not read the letters.
What follows are the crowdsourced hiring decision-maker opinions on cover-letter advice I’ve given over the years. Remember that cover letters are highly subjective, and you’d be hard-pressed to develop a cover letter that would please every employer. But these sentiments can guide your thinking toward some pretty darned effective letters:
Although failing to include a cover letter is no longer the disqualifying factor it once was, submitting a high-quality cover letter with your resume can be a strong differentiator. If such a significant portion of the employer audience does not even read cover letters, should you always submit them with a resume? That’s a tricky question. Most of the decision-makers I talked to said they would probably not eliminate an otherwise qualified candidate for failing to submit a cover letter, even though these employers value cover letters and prefer to receive them.
You should, however, always include a cover letter if:
- The employer specifically requests that you do so. If a cover letter is requested, and you fail to submit one, you are showing you cannot follow instructions. “I tell people in my posting to include a cover letter about why this job is for them,” says Bonnie Zaben, COO at AC Lion, New York City, “and still I get resumes without cover letters (which I don’t read).”
- Your targeted job requires strong writing, communication, persuasive, marketing, or sales skills. Did you notice that list encompasses a huge portion of jobs? Yup. I still advise including a cover letter in most situations because your letter can demonstrate the skills on that list. “Unless the resume itself is completely incredible or it’s from someone I know, [not including a cover letter is] an instant disqualification,” says Erin Cheyne, creative director of Cheyne Creative. “My company is marketing- and advertising-centric, so it’s especially important for job candidates to be able to sell themselves in this industry. If you don’t even try to market yourself, how can I tell if you’ll be able to work in marketing?” Similarly, Beth Smith, president of A-list Interviews, Boulder, CO, notes: “If I asked for a cover letter, it is usually because I need a writing sample. Most jobs require excellent written and oral communication skills, and I need to see how they articulate in a cover letter.”
You may want to consider company size in deciding whether to include a cover letter. “When I was with a huge corporation, I did not even read the cover letters,” says Grant DiCianni, president of Tapestry Productions Inc., a Christian fine-art reproduction gallery in Temecula, CA. Back then, DiCianni only skimmed the resume for the right qualifications because he had 300 applicants for each job. “Here at Tapestry,” he says, “the person is more important then their qualifications, so I look for the cover letter and resume to give me a sense of a potential hire’s ability to cogently and succinctly communicate.”
And, as David Shelton, vice president for operations for Medical Advocacy Services for Healthcare (The MASH Program), Fort Worth, TX, points out, “Why wouldn’t an applicant include a cover letter? It’s a great way to address your skills and how they match to the opportunity; it demonstrates strong writing skills and, if done correctly, it allows your resume to be more memorable.”
“A well-prepared cover letter that describes how the applicant feels he or she is a good fit for the position will absolutely help that applicant stand out from the crowd,” notes Adam S. Toporek of IntenseFence Management Solutions.
A cover letter certainly won’t hurt your application — unless it’s error laden and of poor quality. A cover letter can also miss the opportunity to show off skills integral to the targeted job, as Sheri Graciano learned. “Recently I was recruiting for a marketing position,” recalls Graciano, who is human-resource manager for the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “People who work in marketing are supposed to be creative, and we wanted to try to find the cream of the crop in terms of creative marketers. I asked applicants to submit ‘the most creative cover letter they could muster.’ Sadly, more than 85 percent of the submissions were standard, run-of-the-mill cover letters without an ounce of creativity included.” So, if you prepare a cover letter, make it your best and most careful effort.
“In the old days, not having a cover letter made you stand out from the crowd; today, having a cover letter, makes you stand out from the crowd,” Toporek observes.
If you choose not to include a cover letter, you must ensure that your resume can stand on its own.
Let me also add that the significant portion of employers who hold anti-cover-letter sentiments could make things a lot easier for job-seekers if they simply specified in their job postings that they do not want a cover letter.
Addressing your cover letter to a specific person by name can be a big plus, and some employers expect you to do so.
Regarding this issue that launched my crowdsourcing effort — while a few hiring decision-makers I talked with feel a letter that addresses them by name is “creepy,” “spooky,” and “disconcerting” — most appreciate the personalization and extra effort that go into using their name. The advice I’ve given for all these years is reflected in the words of Mike Sprouse: “It is 100 percent expected that cover letters be personalized and well-targeted. If I do not receive a personalized cover letter, I immediately think this candidate is either lazy or not resourceful. With so much information available through LinkedIn and other avenues, I basically throw out ‘To Whom it May Concern’ letters immediately. So I would not say I’m impressed by people who research my name; I would say I expect it,” says Sprouse, who is a chief marketer, entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist.
Cheyne agrees: “I won’t even consider a candidate if they haven’t taken the time to do their research and find my name,” she says. “Part of that is because my line of work is centered around being able to reach the potential customer on a personal level. If a job applicant doesn’t try to do that with me in their cover letter, I’ll have major doubts about their ability to perform well in this line of work. With the amount of information available through search engines now, it has become offensive to use the traditional ‘Dear Sir or Madam.’ Take five minutes, and Google the company. You’ll figure out whom to address your cover letter to.”
Most hiring decision-makers I talked to, however, were not as adamant as Sprouse and Cheyne in wanting a personalized letter. Still, they used descriptors such as “proactive,” “ambitious,” “creative,” “resourceful,” “determined,” for job-seekers who go to the trouble to learn their names. “While I will always choose the best candidate if all else is equal, the one [who] has researched us/me, sent in the personalized cover letter, contacted me directly, and showed aggressive interest will win all tiebreakers,” says Ron Kubitz, recruiting manager at Brayman Construction Corp., Saxonburg, PA. Toporek adds, “A personalized, job-specific cover letter pretty much guarantees that we will look more closely at the applicant.”
Here are the situations in which you must address the letter’s recipient by name:
- When the job posting instructs you to do so.
- When the decision-maker’s name appears in the posting.
Also realize that some employers deliberately omit a name but expect the job-seeker to be resourceful enough to find it. “I purposely do not include my name in the ad, so that they have to seek it out,” explains Lisa Pike,
Our article, Sleuthing Out Hiring Managers Key to Job-Search Follow-up, contains many tips for researching names of addressees — and it was written before the advent of social-media tools like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook that make such sleuthing even easier.
Tailoring your cover letter very specifically to the targeted job is still and always the way to go; if you don’t, the cover letter has no point.
Nothing has changed in my long-standing advice that a cover letter cannot be a canned or generic form letter, but written specifically for each job you target. “It’s really obvious when an applicant has written one cover letter that they use for all jobs,” says Jessica Oman, owner/CEO of Write Ahead Consulting, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Generic letters that show no understanding of the targeted job are among the biggest annoyances hiring decision-makers mentioned. This tailoring is one of the most fundamental reasons cover letters even exist. They answer the questions: “Why are you sending me your resume, and why should I consider you for this specific job?”
These days, employers also expect resumes to be specifically targeted to each job, but it’s usually not difficult to make just a few tweaks in a boilerplate resume to tailor it to a given job. The cover letter should go much further in showing the job-seeker has researched the organization and the job. “It actually irks me when job-seekers seem to have not taken the time to know more about the company,” says Yoel Calek, owner/director at Strategic Minds. “Form letters with no research behind them that lack basic information about the role or the company … go to the bottom right away,” Sprouse adds.
Although hiring decision-makers vary wildly in what they want to see in a cover letter, some common themes emerge.
Twenty years ago, I offered a basic four-paragraph structure for a cover letter, and hundreds of career experts have suggested their own formulas and structures. In fact, when I asked hiring decision-makers what they wanted to see in a cover letter, they all said something different.
A few aspects pop up over and over, however, on employers’ wish lists: Relevant accomplishments, fit with the job, understanding of the job, personality, enthusiasm, knowledge of the employer, and consistency with resume (but not a rehash of the resume).
To see much more detail about what hiring decision-makers want to see in cover letters, check out our sidebar, Cover Letter Wish List: Hiring Decision-Makers Reveal What They Want to See in Cover Letters.
Hiring decision-makers offer no consensus on how they want to receive cover letters (in the body of an e-mail message vs. as an attachment), so research on each employer’s preference is imperative.
Several employers said they had no preference for how they want to receive cover letters, and some said they wanted to receive them both ways. Others felt strongly about getting cover letters only in the body of an email, while still others were just as adamant about receiving them only as attachments. One respondent noted that if he gets a resume attached to a blank email, he almost always deletes it.
Ideally a job posting will tell you how to submit your resume and cover letter. But if it doesn’t — given the wide range of preference on this issue — you’ll need to do some research. The place to start is on the career portion of the employer’s Website. Check carefully to see if a submission preference is stated. If you can’t find it, you can try calling the employer to ask. Some employers are not receptive to phone calls related to applying for jobs, but most should be able to answer a simple question about how to submit your cover letter.
Also consider sending your letter and resume by postal mail in addition to whichever electronic method the employer prefers; few other candidates will do so, so you’ll stand out.
Prospecting/cold-contact cover letters will probably not yield fast results, but an excellent, well-researched letter that tells how you can address an employer’s challenges can be a terrific investment in the future.
One of the three kinds of cover letters I’ve talked about for 20 years is the cold-contact, or prospecting letter. This letter is used in an exploratory fashion to express an interest in working for a specific employer but not in response to a specific opening. A step beyond the cold-contact/prospecting is the job-proposal letter, in which the job-seeker has comprehensively researched an employer and is proposing that the employer create a position for the job-seeker who asserts that he or she can address one or more of the employer’s challenges. (An excellent resource for how to compose a job-proposal letter is Denise Bissonette’s Beyond Traditional Job Development: The Art of Creating Opportunity.)
While a few of the hiring decision-makers I talked to had interviewed candidates based on a cold-contact/prospecting letter, none had ever created a position for one. They usually cited budgetary reasons for not doing so. Many of them, however, said they often kept those cover letters on file for future openings. Jeff Gordon’s response was typical: “If I have a superstar candidate with a ‘killer’ cover letter but not a fit with current positions, I’ll put them in the coveted ‘save for future’ file. That is indeed the golden file of sharp candidates who would be a great addition to the company in perhaps another role,” says Gordon, founder of LA-based online marketin agency