by Louise Giordano
How frequently I am asked the questions, “Do cover letters really count?” or “Does anyone ever really read cover letters?” My answer is always the same, “Some do, some don’t!” But what I can never answer is how any one recruiter or hiring individual will react to an applicant’s letter and/or resume. The fact is that you can never know. It is a very individual response. We do know that recruiters react negatively to poorly written and poorly edited, proofed, or formatted documents. We know that you must make your documents reader-friendly and to the point, clearly expressing what that reader needs to know about you as a candidate. Fluff, cliches, and generalities do not pass muster.
So you — as writer and job-seeker — must give employers what counts: a letter that complements your resume, serves as your first writing sample, and focuses the reader on what you have to offer, what you bring to the position, and why you are a suitable candidate. It elaborates, clarifies, or adds material in clear language that is compelling and sharp. A terrific resume might never get read if the cover letter doesn’t hook the reader. Make a strong case for why you are a good fit for the job, providing specific examples matched to the employer’s needs as stated in the job description. Point the reader to qualifications and experiences that clearly show your fit.
Here’s what counts:
- Use the Job Search/Interview Prep Sheet:
- 1st column: Use bullets to list the employer’s requirements for the job by pinpointing key words or phrases from the job description.
- 2nd column: Matched to each bullet point from the 1st column, list your specific qualifications and experiences for the position.
- Use the first two columns only. The third column is for interview preparation.
- Think about the answers to key questions:
- What do you most want the reader to know about you?
- What information is most germane to the employer’s needs and to his/her decision-making?
- What do you bring to this employer? (quality education, relevant courses, experiences, or internships, leadership, community service, special knowledge, skills)
- Editor’s note: For tools to help you identify accomplishments, see our article, For Job-Hunting Success: Track/Leverage Your Accomplishments and our Job-Seeker Accomplishments Worksheet.
- Contents: Write the letter covering the most pertinent points from the 2nd column. Carefully choose experiences that will be most relevant to the employer, but select examples that clearly illustrate your suitability for meeting his/her needs. Be discriminating — you cannot address everything in the letter,
- Format: Be brief, appropriate, and professional.
- Length: No more than one page; generally no more than four paragraphs.
- Tone: Professional, not too stuffy or too casual. Read the letter aloud or to someone else to check for tone.
- Appropriateness: Avoid extraneous cliches, fillers, and superfluous information — but be honest and sincere.
Final Thoughts About Cover Letters
Your application for a position is rarely evaluated on the basis of the resume or cover letter alone. But as an applicant, you have no way of knowing what the reader wants to know and/or how s/he prefers it presented. To enhance your chances for consideration, be certain that both documents are perfect — no errors in spelling, grammar, tone, or content. Hook that reader immediately and you may have hooked yourself a job! This is what surely counts!
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Louise Giordano has been a career counselor at Brown University since 1992 and solely staffs the Providence College Alumni Career Advising Program. She served as director of business placement at Johnson & Wales University from 1987 to 1989. Prior to and concurrent with these activities, she was a secondary foreign-language teacher in public and private schools in CT, MA, and RI.