No, the Cover Letter Isn’t Dead Yet

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When was the last time a candidate sent you an actual cover letter?

Once a staple of every application or resume submission, the once-required cover letter is now considered purely optional.

Job seekers think they’re unnecessary, because they think all the information a recruiter might need is in the resume or could be found in a LinkedIn profile.

Recruiters may similarly overlook cover letters, because they feel they don’t have enough time to read them or that they don’t really provide significant insight into the candidate’s aptitude for the job.

But let’s not sound the death knell for cover letters just yet.

Perhaps it’s time to promote their resurgence; savvy candidates and recruiters understand their value and the critical role they can play in the recruitment and hiring process.

Consider all the things a well-written cover letter can do:

  • It can deliver valuable information that a resume can’t.

Of course a resume will remain the cornerstone of a job application.

It (hopefully) not only clearly and concisely illustrates the candidate’s positions at former and current employers but allows a candidate to spotlight specific achievements that distinguish him or her for the job.

Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) routinely scour incoming resumes and help determine candidates who most closely fit the job requirements (take a look at a great infographic explaining how ATSs work or watch an animated video version.

But since automated systems as well as resumes have their limits, a cover letter may offer great insight into the personality, character and experience that may – even more fully than a resume – define the candidate and their suitability for both the job and your corporate culture.

Candidates new to the job market may not have too much employment history on their resume.

The cover letter provides an opportunity for candidates to express why the job fits into their career goals and objectives.

It also allows for an explanation of how their education and extracurricular activities may have helped qualify them for the job.

  • It can highlight a candidate’s potential and vision for what he or she can accomplish at a future employer.

Keep in mind that even well-crafted resumes tend to focus on what people have done in the past, while cover letters allow candidates to discuss what they might do in the future.

Conscientious candidates will give it some thought and explain how all the bullet points on the next page(s) will enable them to make a great contribution to your company.

They’ll use the cover letter to illustrate how the achievements on the resume can be put to best use.

For example, a resume inclusion “Grew sales by 30%” can be illuminated in the cover letter with “I not only brought in lucrative new accounts but learned how to identify and influence key decision makers.

This skill will enable me to quickly ramp up sales for your company.”

Conversely, you may realize that the candidate lacks vision if the cover letter merely focuses on how great the candidate thinks he or she is, or how the job will be a great fit, and ignores the possibilities of the future.

  • It can help fill in the blanks and provide much-needed context.

A cover letter affords an opportunity for the candidate to describe informative details behind the resume’s bullet points and enables you to “read between the lines” of the resume.

A resume, for instance, might mention that a candidate delivered on a key project on time and under budget, while a cover letter can provide additional details such as the scope of the project, its importance to revenue maintenance, and the resources the candidate had to corral to get the project completed.

If the candidate wastes the opportunity to provide this kind of valuable contextual information and merely paraphrases the resume, it may help you realize that this person may not be the kind of thinker you really want at your organization.

  • It helps showcase a candidate’s communication abilities.

A cover letter reveals a candidate’s ability to both write well and lay out clear and well-organized messages.

If a candidate’s thought process is scattered, this may indicate how he or she will do on the job.

If, however, each paragraph is focused and delivers a powerful and coherent message, you may have discovered a great candidate who will provide focused contributions within your organization.

  • It can reveal a candidate’s creativity and imagination.

Does the cover letter contain original thinking?

If you’ve seen the same wording or even exact phrases in other resumes, the candidate may not be skilled at original thought.

Plagiarism may be an indication of things to come as your employee.

  • It can demonstrate that candidates have done their homework.

While candidates might send their resumes to multiple prospective employees “as is,” a cover letter may show you the amount of time and energy they’re investing in this opportunity.

A cover letter addressed “Dear Sir or Madam” or “To whom it may concern” may reflect laziness or a lack of enthusiasm.

Real go-getters have done the research to get your name and/or accurate title.

If the application has been sent to you in an email, how does the subject line look?

Better candidates may have included their name and the precise name of the position (and number, if applicable) for which they’re applying.

Attention to details like this can reveal a lot about a candidate.

Good candidates carefully read the job posting to understand what you’re looking for and have customized the application for your specific needs.

They’ve also done enough research to have some idea of larger challenges you may be facing.

For instance, a good candidate might indicate that your largest competitor’s newest product offering provides an opportunity for you to update your messaging to the market.

  • It describes a candidate’s next steps or plan.

Good marketing always includes a call to action.

A good cover letter should, as well.

Stronger candidates will close with a reiteration of their interest in and suitability for the opening, a request for an interview, or may even be bold enough to ask if they may call you to follow up.

This is a person who really wants the job.

In sum, a well-written cover letter may reveal a lot of very valuable insight into candidates that can provide a fuller picture of their aptitude for the position than a resume alone can.

While it may add a bit of time to the application review process, the investment may be worth your consideration.

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Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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