You can feel a little directionless during a job hunt. At times, the questions seem to outnumber the answers 2-to-1.
Do I need to wear a suit? Do I need to send a thank-you note? What is my biggest weakness? How do I give a good handshake? The stress can be overwhelming. One question that still pesters job seekers, especially as job hunting increasingly takes place online, is whether or not a cover letter is still necessary. On the one hand, a cover letter is a traditional component of the searching process and omitting one feels weird. But time is valuable during a job hunt and wasting time on something nobody will read is aggravating.
So are cover letters a waste of time or an overlooked attention grabber?
Overwhelmingly, hiring managers and human resources personnel view cover letters as a necessity in the job hunt.
How a cover letter helps you
When you submit an application or résumé to an employer, you probably haven't spoken at length with the hiring manager. Therefore your papers are one needle in a huge haystack of applicants. Your goal is to set yourself apart as quickly as possible and not to give the hiring manager any reason to dismiss you from consideration; a cover letter can help you achieve that goal.
"Employers need to know you know how to communicate in writing," says Sue Thompson, a personal coach and corporate trainer. "Your résumé may have been done professionally or using a template, and you may have done a good job of proofreading. But a cover letter shows you have the ability to put sentences together and sound like a halfway intelligent person. It will reveal whether your education has any merit: Are words spelled properly? Is the grammar correct? Is the punctuation appropriate?"
You can look at the cover letter as a way to persuade the hiring manager to consider you for the job. Or, if fear is a better motivator, think about the lack of a cover letter, or one written poorly, as a strike against you.
"You can be the smartest person within 100 miles, and maybe the right person for the job, but you will knock yourself right out of the running with a poor cover letter. You make the recruiter's job easier when they see a poorly written, poorly proofread cover letter. They can discard your résumé and move on," Thompson adds.
The need to craft a strong cover letter cannot be stressed enough, however. When you gave your parents homemade birthday cards as a child, they lovingly accepted them because it's the thought that counts. That's not the case with cover letters, so your typos and sloppy presentation are detrimental, not endearing.
Connect the dots
Job coach and former recruiter Judi Perkins wants job seekers to understand the role of a well-written cover letter. "When they're written correctly, they're extremely effective, because they're a sales tool." And the secret to this sales tool is taking a two-pronged approach to the cover letter.
"The first part: The key is that [cover letters] need to be focused on what the buyer -- the hiring company -- wants," Perkins says. This means you need to look at the ad and see what it's asking for because that's what the employer is looking for, too. "The ad tells you, explicitly, what that company wants.
"But here's the second part -- the kicker -- that no one else even teaches (and even professional sales people don't do): bridge the benefit back to the company; spell out the benefit of hiring you."
Simply put, you know what the company wants and you know what you can offer -- your résumé is a list of your accomplishments, after all. So Perkins suggests you just connect the dots for your readers.
"It forces them to visualize the effect of you in the business as an employee. They're not going to take this step themselves -- there are too many résumés to go through. Spell everything out for them and it gives you a distinct leg up over all the other vastly ineffective cover letters that they receive."
The new cover letter
Job hunting has changed quite a bit since the advent of the Internet, as many of today's job seekers have probably never applied for a job via the mail. This means that the practice of placing a cover letter and résumé in an envelope and mailing it is antiquated for many companies. But does that mean you have to write an e-mail to the employer and attach both the cover letter and résumé, or do you skip the cover letter when applying online?
"The growing prevalence of applying via e-mail or through an organization's Web site is making cover letters obsolete in most industries," according to Wes Henricksen, president of Seize the A, an academic consulting organization. "That does not mean that the ability to write a cover letter has become obsolete. Instead, it means the rules have changed. The new 'cover letter' is often a shorter two-paragraph message in the body of an e-mail. Although this new 'cover e-mail' is shorter and less formal, its content is no less important than that of a traditional cover letter. Style, spelling, grammar and professionalism are all still vitally important."
What employers think
You know how a good cover letter can work to your advantage, but what if you don't submit one? Are you doomed? For some employers, such as Angela Ruggiero, yes. She's an adviser for Stanton Communications' internship program. As a new graduate, she didn't bother with a cover letter, and now she realizes her mistake.
"I see red flags when there is no cover letter along with a résumé," Ruggiero says. "The absence of cover letters translates to me that the candidate is lazy and is sending résumés in masses, rather than customizing or personalizing to each individual company of interest."
While the absence of a cover letter might land you in the rejected pile, the inclusion of one could keep you at the top of the short-list. "Sometimes a person's cover letter drives me to call a candidate for an interview over another who may have had qualifications that were just as impressive."
You could save yourself some time and not write a cover letter, which has a decent shot of hurting your job prospects. Or you could devote the time to write a thorough but brief letter that at worst isn't read and at best lands you a job. Not a tough call.