Writing a cover letter for each and every job to which you apply can feel like an exercise in tedium — especially when not explicitly required by some job postings. If you're hesitating whether (or not) to include a cover letter in your application materials these days, the answer is a resounding yes.
"The biggest mistake many job hunters are currently making is that they actually skip writing a cover letter when sending off a resume," an AT&T HR manager told Forbes last year.
Certified Professional Resume Writer Greg Faherty agrees, saying half of hiring managers won't read a resume if there's no accompanying cover letter. "Think about that," he says. "If you don't send a cover letter, you're automatically eliminating yourself from 50 percent of the jobs you apply for — 50 percent. That's a lot of jobs. And in 2020, things will only get tougher."
That said, knowing why cover letters are a vital part of the application process and what to include to make you stand out will put you ahead of the competition.
1. Why is a Cover Letter So Important?
Think of your cover letter like a handshake. You're introducing yourself to someone, making a good first impression, and setting the tone for the rest of your interaction.
"[The cover letter] demonstrates you're aware of professional protocols and you have the ability to communicate in a business format," says Faherty. "These are traits that hiring managers look for — after all, if you take care to do things the right way when you apply for a job, odds are you'll do things the right way when you have the job."
The cover letter is also an individualized tool to help set you apart from other candidates. Faherty elaborates, "The cover letter allows recruiters to differentiate between candidates with similar qualifications. You should tailor your letter to the specific job opening. This means including the keywords, skills and achievements that best demonstrate why you are an ideal candidate for the position." Basically, cover letters allow you to elaborate on your skills and accomplishments, establishing personality and professional enthusiasm that simply can't be reflected in a resume.
Most of all, as Faherty explains, the cover letter "takes the place of the old Objective heading on the resume, which isn't used anymore. In this respect, the cover letter is important because it's where you indicate what position you're interested in. This should be right in the first paragraph." Faherty notes that the letter should not sound "like you've just copied the job opening."
2. Things to Remember for Your Cover Letter in 2020
There's good and bad news for cover letters in 2020, according to Faherty. He says, "The good news is the basic format of a standard cover letter won't change much in the next year or two. The bad news is HR reps and recruiters will expect more out of your cover letter because there will be more competition for interviews."
You should start with a strong first line. Avoid standard, boring openers such as "I am replying to your ad I saw posted on [job website]," "I am very interested in working for your company," or any premature, flowery explanation of how your skills are a great fit for such a great company.
Sloppy writing, long-winded details and weak openings will get you nowhere. "The cover letter is where you demonstrate your writing skills," says Faherty. "In an era where language, communication and writing skills are deteriorating each year, it's important to show that you can write complete sentences, spell correctly and use proper grammar. This means that before you send it out, proofread it carefully and make sure you've included the proper keywords for your industry."
Faherty explains that "a cover letter should only be one page in length, [so] you need to be very selective about what you include. This isn't the time to be verbose or waste space on inconsequential information."
The cover letter should be easy to read and your skills and accomplishments should stand out. "A good way to do this is to bullet point accomplishments and skill lists," he says. Following is an example supplied by Faherty:
A sampling of my accomplishments in similar roles includes:
- Exceeding goals every year and producing double-digit revenue growth the past five years.
- Developing a new business development strategy that enabled the company to enter new markets.
- Eliminating backlogs of work by introducing a new database to track assignments.
- Increasing customer satisfaction 30 percent by implementing a post-project evaluation survey.
- Saving $200,000 a year by establishing a centralized document control center, to reduce paper use.
Some of the skills I would bring to this position are:
- The ability to effectively coordinate multiple projects simultaneously.
- Previous experience in logistics, warehouse management, and distribution.
- Special expertise in guiding organizations through periods of rapid change.
"Keep these tips in mind and you'll have a better-than-average chance of getting your resume read in 2020 and beyond," says Faherty.
3. What Your Cover Letter Should Look Like
Like a resume, cover letters are not "one size fits all." You can select from various designs and formats, or even craft them to address specific scenarios, such as a career change or relocation. And remember that fonts, spacing, margins and headers all matter.