Cover Letters

Shalie Reich
Shalie Reich

Table of Contents

The controversial cover letter! Is this additional work really worth it? Should you skip applying for jobs that require one? As an organization, should you ask for one or avoid it all together? Read on to decide!

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What Is a Cover Letter?

A cover letter can be thought of as an additional way to market your job application alongside your resume. The dictionary defines a cover letter as: “a letter that is sent with something to explain the reason for it or to give more information about it.” Simply put, you are taking a bit more time to explain yourself in a cover letter than you are able to on your resume. The cover letter shows the organization the “why” behind your application.

Should You Require Applicants to Submit Cover Letters?

Requiring or not requiring cover letters is organization specific. Surprisingly, this topic can be quite controversial, so let’s review the advantages and disadvantages of both to assist you and your organization in the decision-making process.

Advantages of Asking for Cover Letters

  • Additional information. When you are reviewing resumes and have questions, cover letters can provide some clarification. For example, if a candidate states in a resume they left a position and took 9 months off, the cover letter might explain they went on a humanitarian mission. This alone can completely change your view on a candidate.
  • Tiebreakers. If it’s coming down to the wire and you have multiple candidates and need to narrow it down, the cover letter can help you do so. These letters show a broader picture of the candidate than just the resume and can help narrow down candidates pushing through to interviews.
  • Dialogue. Done correctly, a cover letter can create a dialogue between the hiring manager or recruiter and the candidate that may not have been there without it. By asking for a cover letter, you’re opening a dialogue that can transcend the resume to help you establish if the candidate would fit your organization professionally and culturally.

Disadvantages of Asking for Cover Letters 

  • Extra time. Cover letters take a substantial amount of time, not only for the candidate but for the recruiting or hiring manager reviewing them. The workload placed on your employees is already great reviewing resumes coming in, the messages that follow, and applications. It can sometimes be counterproductive to ask for a cover letter with all the extra work.
  • Generic information. Often when candidates are compiling their cover letters, they are deriving information from a template and this can come across as generic and impersonal. If the candidate doesn’t put in the work the cover letter requires, it can actually hinder their application. A poorly written or generic cover letter could keep a candidate from receiving a job they may have otherwise qualified for.
  • Outdated. Due to the current direction of the market, most candidates view cover letters as outdated. Asking for a cover letter could stop a qualified candidate from applying because they know they’re qualified and should not have to spend time writing why. Losing applicants is a major disadvantage of asking for cover letters.

What to Look for in a Cover Letter

As you are reviewing cover letters for open positions in your organization, it’s important to know what to look for. Let’s go over a few things below:

Specifically Tailored

Each cover letter should be tailored to the specific open role. They should be focused on the details in the job description that truly captured the applicant’s attention and set this job apart from others on the market. Weed out generic fluff such as: “this job aligns with my previous experience,” “I feel I am a perfect fit for this role,” etc. Instead, look for verbiage like: “The job requirements listed in the description, X, Y, and Z, stood out to me because of my previous experience at XYZ company where I effectively completed all those duties daily.” Thinking of tailored specifics when you’re reviewing a cover letter will help immensely.

Professional and Positive

While you want a cover letter to be captivating and fun to read, you also want to keep the professional edge. As you’re reviewing, focus on professional tone and positivity as that can say a lot about a candidate and what they will bring to the culture of your organization. As they elaborate on previous jobs and what brought them to your listing, pay attention to any negative comments or tones about previous employers or work experiences that could rule out the candidate.

Attention to Detail

You want to read something that catches your attention. In cover letters, look for candidates that can paint a picture of situations they effectively participated in, managed, or defused. The ability to focus on both their skills and their ability to articulate real-world examples on the cover letter will set them apart.

Company Research

Candidates often apply to multiple organizations at once, so how can you find candidates that are really interested in your company? Look for that in the cover letter! See if you can find who not only desires to work in the open position but who has researched your company and believes the values and direction of your organization aligns with their own. This can help you know that the candidate is not only qualified but also someone your organization could retain long-term because of their desire to work for your specific company.

How To Write Your Own Cover Letter

A cover letter should not be a regurgitation of the resume or application. Let’s review key things to keep in mind as you write your own cover letter

Step 1: Follow the Structure

Each cover letter should have a standard structure: contact information, greeting, intro, body, closing, and signature. Start by listing your contact information, typically at the top and out of the way so that it is easily accessible to the reviewer. Make your greeting personal and if at all possible, address the hiring manager by name vs. the generic, “to whom it may concern.” Introduce yourself in the most professional attention-grabbing way possible before you head into specifics about why you’re applying for the job. In closing, be sure to convince them you’re the right candidate for the job and professionally sign off.

Step 2: Know the Different Types

There are different types of cover letters and it’s important to know what sets each type apart in order to write the best option for your situation. There are two main categories to review. Knowing the different types and tailoring your cover letter accordingly will help set you apart from the other applicants.

  • Application cover letter. An application cover letter is sent to the hiring manager or recruiter with your resume at the beginning of the application process. In this type of cover letter, you’ll reference specifics about the job posting, organization, and why you believe you are the best candidate for this role. A specific type of application cover letter is a referral cover letter. This could be added at the beginning of your application with specific details on the current employee, their role in the organization, and why they are recommending you for the job. An internal referral cover letter can set you apart from other candidates.
  • Prospective cover letter. If you want to work for an organization but there is not a job opening for your needs right now, feel free to send your resume and a prospective cover letter to try to get the ball rolling. Make this cover letter stand out by recognizing there aren’t open positions, but you are reaching out because you desire to use your skills for this specific organization. Similarly, a networking cover letter allows you to reach out to a specific member of an organization you know in some capacity and start a dialogue.

Step 3: Show Your Personality

While you want to keep your cover letter professional, you can add a sense of your personality at the same time. If a cover letter is required for a specific job, there is a reason, so focus on making yourself stand out. Be sure to target specific skills and real-world examples of those skills through your verbiage in your cover letter. Showing your personality can go a long way with hiring managers or recruiters as they view your qualifications as both a professional and cultural fit.

Step 4: Be Engaging

Be sure to avoid “writing just to write.” Do not drone on and on about yourself for a few paragraphs just to fill the requirement of a cover letter. If you have nothing to say that’s worth the time and energy of the employee reviewing your cover letter, do not say it. A short but engaging cover letter would be much more effective than a long, boring one. Think, “Would I want to read this after a full day of work?” If the answer is no, go back to the drawing board and use the tips listed above to really engage those hiring managers.

Step 5: Study Examples

Here are a few links to some short and long cover letter examples for ideas as you compile your own: 

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Cover Letters

All cover letters should be formatted similarly such as: contact information, greeting, intro, body, closing, and signature.
As we have discussed, this answer can be controversial, but overall, cover letters can help you weed out non-interested candidates and see the personality of a candidate before an interview. Review the pros and cons of requiring a cover letter to see if it’s the right avenue for your organization.
Shalie Reich
Shalie Reich

Shalie has over 4 years of experience working in a variety of HR positions and organizations including: working as an HR department “of one”, working with a start-up based in Europe, to working in a fully established robust USA based HR department. Shalie has experience in multiple states and countries with all aspects of the HR spectrum. She has a passion to share her knowledge and experience to benefit the HR profession!

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