June 25, 2009

Cover Letters...To Do or Not to Do? That is the Question.

Ah, the controversial cover letter. I have had many heated discussions with recruiters and hiring managers on the various virtues and superfluities of this job search fundamental. It doesn't take long for a debate to arise as to whether a cover letter is needed or not.

My experience is that cover letters were more likely to see the circular file than to be read by a potential manager. One of the problems is that you have stacks and stacks of résumés to sort through, and not much time. Therefore, the cover letter is tossed aside in order to get to the real "meat and potatoes" of the candidate via the résumé.

Another issue is that cover letters are often "form letters." In other words, many of the letters I did read sounded too formulaic like the candidate simply cut and pasted the new address onto the same letter. David Silverman from Harvard Business Publishing humorously categorizes cover letters into three groups:

The recap: The résumé in prose form. It's redundant, harder to read than the résumé, and provides no additional insight.

The form letter: This says, essentially, "Dear Sir or Madam: I saw your ad in the paper and thought you might like me." And it's clearly a form letter where maybe they got my name and company right. If they're lucky, I will still take the time to read their résumé after being insulted with a form letter.

The "I'm crazy": This one's rare, and it expands on the résumé of experience with some personal insights. Examples range from the merely batty ("I find batik as an art form has taught me to become both a better person and project manager.") to the truly terrifying ("I cast a pentagram hex and the central line pointed towards your job listing. I know you will find this as comforting as I do.")

So, I'm sure it will come as no surprise that I do not advocate writing formal cover letters (even via e-mail). As a guideline, however, I agree with Mr. Silverman that there are three instances when a cover letter would be prudent:
  1. When you know the name of the person hiring.
  2. When you know something specific about the job requirement (i.e. certifications, contacts, specific software, etc., for which you are qualified).
  3. When you have been personally referred.
Other than these three instances, you should keep your introductory letters extremely short and sweet. To read the full article from David Silverman and to see his recommended cover letter sample, click here.


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