As the calendar turns to a new year (and decade), plenty of debates rage about the necessity of a cover letter in the modern job hunt. While one should always be included if asked for in the job ad, things become murkier without a direct request.
You may be able to skip writing a cover letter and not be seen as a deficient candidate, but you also may waste a valuable opportunity to set yourself apart. The best bet: Learn how to write a terrific cover letter in 2020.
"Call me old fashioned, but I love a good cover letter," says Elizabeth Spayne, EVP of marketing at the talent acquisition firm WinterWyman. "It's the perfect place to add color to your accomplishments and show some of your personality and creativity. I especially admire candidates who use the opportunity to highlight what makes them the perfect fit for the role."
If you need or choose to include a cover letter, do it right. Candidates on the market in 2020 should commit to these three cover letter resolutions:
1. I will treat a cover letter as a valuable piece of marketing material.
Once and for all, do away with the idea that you can compose a single cover letter to use for any position that arises. A generic document comes off as boring and uncaring – and does nothing to advance your candidacy.
Think of a solid cover letter as targeted sales, as opposed to junk mail. Convince the "customer" (in this case, the employer), that you're exactly the "product" his company needs.
What you present should be relevant and vivid. Instead of rehashing your resume, expand on the best of what you bring to the table. Give some attention-grabbing statistics (such as increasing a previous employer's sales by 3 percent) or a memorable story (such as turning a grumpy customer into a valuable, long-term client). The purpose here is to generate enough interest to get called for an interview, not bore the reader with a long-winded biography.
The days of creating a cover letter that is a synopsis of your skills are long gone, says Emily Brinkert, head of human resources and talent management at JUST Media.
"We want to hear your story and how it relates to our organization," she said. "Sharing your authentic story showcasing why you are applying at our company and why your skills will elevate the team will get you to the top of the list. Granted, this story needs to be concise and compelling in order to do that -- but even one strong paragraph can be a catalyst."
2. I will write in a way that shows I'm a good fit.
Fulfilling this resolution in 2020 involves two important aspects – making it through an automated scan and appealing to a "real" person.
Nowadays, the first "reader"' of application materials is often an ATS (applicant tracking system) that scans documents for predetermined keywords. If those terms aren't there, the candidate does not receive further consideration. Thus, in order to pass through this critical stage, smart applicants review job postings carefully to determine what words to include.
An ATS treats a cover letter as searchable text, just like a resume. Therefore, a cover letter gives you additional opportunities to use key terms, oftentimes in a more natural way than on your resume.
Buzzwords tell a machine you're a potential fit. The next step is convincing a human that you're an appropriate match, and this person wants more than a bunch of terms.
"My biggest piece of advice is to not write like a robot but rather write like you and how you'd write to a distant family member or direct manager," says Ciara Hautau, lead digital marketing strategist at Fueled. "Don't go overboard on vocabulary but rather talk as you would in a conversation. You want to be as personable as you can. When I see a cover letter that is personal, is injected with tons of personality, and is thoughtful I immediately want to interview that candidate right away."
3. I will remember that I won't get a second chance to make a first impression.
Despite technology making it easier than ever to create professional-looking, error-free documents, some candidates still submit cover letters that leave much to be desired. Before sending, double-check the following:
- Spelling and grammar
- Consistent font choice and size
- Readability (the look is pleasing to the eye)
- Completing any special instructions (for example, some employers will ask you include a certain phrase in your cover letter as proof that you actually read the entire job ad and did what it asked)
"And please avoid using 'To Whom It May Concern' or 'Dear Sirs,'" says Matt Cholerton, human resources leader and founder of Hito Labs. "Do just a touch of research on LinkedIn, or call the company. Even if you use the wrong name, I'd rather see you address a peer in HR or a department leader. Using an actual name shows you want our role (not just any role) and makes a more personal connection."
Need some assistance in creating a stellar cover letter? Resolve to make LiveCareer's Cover Letter Builder part of your 2020 job-hunt arsenal.