I never go more than a week without hearing a client ask, “Do I still need to submit a cover letter? My resume has everything on it, including my LinkedIn URL, and I’m not sure what else I would even add. Do recruiters even read these anymore?” Yes. The answer is still yes. But it’s not about simply submitting one; it’s about submitting a great one and not shooting yourself in the foot along with way. Here are a few things to consider the next time you’re tackling this piece of your process.
So here’s the skinny. Your resume is pretty black and white, because it’s all the factual stuff; it's the who, what, when, and where. Your cover letter is the why.
This is your chance to show them what makes you tick, and explain why you're passionate about this field, company, industry, etc. That being said, don’t think for two seconds they’re reading your cover letter before your resume.
Just because it's referred to as a cover letter, doesn't mean it's actually on the cover of anything. As a former recruiter I can tell you, there was never a circumstance when I grabbed a cover letter and resume, and then chose to spend five minutes reading the cover letter before checking to see if the resume met the minimum qualifications. (With 100+ candidates in the hopper, no one has time for that.) So, your resume is still your first line of defense, meaning it has to be on point. If it's sub-par... then your cover letter definitely isn't getting any love. Also, remember that if I'm checking out your resume first, you can refrain from saying a million times in your cover letter: "as you'll see in my resume... as my resume states... as you'll notice on my resume..." Ya… we saw it. What else ya got?
The fastest way to kill your cover letter is to write (or worse, copy) a generic one. If I'm the recruiter, and I feel like you've sent this same letter to 10 other companies, I'm not investing my time in you. Not because you’re lazy, but because now you just seem like a flight risk. (Should you apply to 10 other companies? Of course! But should they be able to tell by your lack of effort in hiding it? No!) Be intentional about your statements. Will this take time? Of course. Is it annoying? Always. But risking getting your app thrown out over a lack of effort isn’t worth it. How will I know you phoned it in? My company name is nowhere to be seen, it's addressed "to whom it may concern" (when, let’s be real, you can find anything online these days), or because all you talk about… is you.
The best way to stand out is to show up…for them. Tell the company what you would bring to the table if given the opportunity. If I’m paying you a salary, it’s not because you're awesome (even if you are); I’m paying you because you're a professional coming in to do a specific job I need done - and done well. Why should I hire you, over someone else? This is your chance to shine, but don’t forget to show us the love. If you want to work at Nike, don't tell me you've always wanted to "work for a footwear company"... tell me why you've always wanted to work for NIKE! Otherwise, I'm going to assume you've applied to every other footwear company around, and that makes me feel like you're not really into my company. (Note: While LinkedIn is super important, this is the biggest reason why it’s shouldn’t be a replacement for your cover letter; you never know who is looking at your profile, so it’s hard to tailor in the same way. Cover letters can be hyper-focused and that’s the goal.)
Not a loyalist and just need a job? That’s totally fair. But if you really want the job, you need to research the company until you feel confident enough to explain what they do, what their mission statement is, and how this all aligns with “exactly what you’re looking for.”
Remember, cover letters are your key to standing out. If I’m the recruiter, I want you to explain the new ideas and fresh perspective you’d bring to my team. And for crying out loud, don't tell me you want this position because it will help you "grow within the field." Great, so you can leave me for a competitor when you're done "growing?" No! (Keep some cards closer to your chest until you’re interviewing.) Tell me how and why you're going to kill it in this position, drive for results, and make a difference in our organization. That's who I want to interview (and hire).
A lack of effort on your part is easy to spot. If there’s no mention of the required skills or experience I listed in the job description, or any details about how you would fit in with our culture (as outlined on our site), I’m going to notice. Did you pick up on how I mentioned this person must be “great at X” 10 times in the job description? Yes? Then speak to it! We spend hours building these things from scratch – these are your cheat codes! Use them!
Another face-palm moment: when your whole cover letter is simply your resume regurgitated into paragraph form with generic lines like, "...I'm a flexible team-player who works well independently, or within a team." FUNNY! So isn't EVERYONE ELSE who just applied for this job. Instead of telling me “as seen on your career site…,” I’d rather you show me you read through it by discussing how you (specifically) align with our core values, and how the type of office environment and team culture we foster compliments how you work best. That shows fit, without having to say, “I think I’d be a great fit.”
You absolutely need to sell yourself and articulate the strengths you'll be bringing to this position; however, please avoid at ALL COSTS sounding like an entitled, cocky, know-it-all that no one will want to work with - or manage. Also, your degree doesn't entitle you to an interview, so skip it. We already saw it on your resume and lots of candidates will have a degree! On the other hand, did you specifically go back to school to get a certain degree or certification, so you can make this exact type of transition? That’s the story I want to hear! Show me your investment in this move.
Another word for cocky is unlikable. Remember, being likable will take you a long way at this point in the process. Let your personality come through in your cover letter, and feel free to be bold in tactful ways like, "I know you're going to have a large candidate pool for this role, but I am extremely interested in joining your team because [bla bla bla...] and if given the chance, I will work tirelessly and do everything in my power to prove my value to your team and this organization." That is confidence right there, and confidence with a side of humble pie is cover letter gold.
What does cover letter coal look like? "I'm qualified for this position and know that I am the best candidate based on my skills and experience. I look forward to hearing from you and discussing my future role within your organization…" Eek. (And believe me... that's actually a mild example of what I’ve seen, but you get the point.) Don't tell them it would be "their loss" if they don't bring you in for an interview, and don’t make assumptions that you are the "best candidate." You don't know that. (And after they read your holier-than-thou cover letter, you probably won't be.)
At the end of the day, keep it short and sweet (2-3 paragraphs), speak from the heart, tell them your story while appealing to their values and mission, and stay focused on how you have proven results in this kind of field/role - or why you know you will. And as you may have experienced, even the most eloquent and heart-felt cover letters sometimes go unread or unacknowledged, but just because it doesn’t land you an interview with one company, doesn’t mean it won’t with the next 10.
All it takes is one.
Read more articles that provide job hunting advice and recruiting insight by Krystal Hicks at jobtalkllc.com.
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