5 reasons to love cover letters when you really hate them

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Over at the technology job site Dice, they are in the process of hiring a person to work on technology reporting in Silicon Valley and writing about the process on the Dice web site. It’s not often you get an inside look at what goes on inside a hiring managers head and the comments about it are pretty interesting in their own right. (Disclosure: I write for Dice in the career advice area). The biggest area of contention? The writing of cover letters.

People really hate writing them.

For good reasons too: they take time. Automated resume readers at big companies don’t pay any attention to them. Plus, when you get that legally perfect, automated “We don’t care about you but will keep your stuff on file” rejection e-mail, writing the cover letter is not seen as making a difference.

I seriously get this; I don’t like writing cover letters either. Just starting out writing them is hard…like who do you address the letter to? Dear job number 143276…

But there are very good reasons to write cover letters when applying for a job. You should really love them, even if you hate writing them.

1. Cover letters show differentiation from the masses

The rule here is that everyone hates writing cover letters, so they don’t. The fact they don’t means if you DO write one, you can have a competitive advantage over other candidates to get the interview. Differentiating yourself in this job market is critical to get the interview and a cover letter is a great way to show that simply by doing one.

2. Cover letters highlight particular areas of the resume for the job

Yes, your resume will show your accomplishments and how you qualify for the job. But it may take sifting through five different jobs to really address how you fit with the job you are applying for. Or you may have consistently done all sorts of work that fits the job description, but it is not as obvious in the resume (like your job title is Project Manager, but half your work was on process management while you had the job title).

The cover letter allows you to gracefully tie together all the parts of your resume relevant to the prospective job. It tells the story of why you are the right fit for the job.

3. Cover letters force you to think through why you are right for the prospective job

Seriously, a hiring manager cannot divine how you are the best fit for the job. The resume is a great way to show all your accomplishments, job skills and work history, but it doesn’t laser focus the reason you would be so great on the prospective job.

Cover letters give you the ability to describe your unique work characteristics that show how you would fit the job better than others. Of course, if you don’t know why you would be great on the job, this would make doing a cover letter especially difficult to do. Know yourself and what special talents and skills you bring to the work you do and incorporate that into the cover letter.

4. Cover letters prove your communications ability

Resumes provide the facts, but cover letters provide the story. People remember the stories while they won’t remember the facts. If you can’t communicate why you would be great on the job, chances are you won’t be able to communicate well on the job either; a nightmare situation for a manager.

My favorite comment in the Dice article was from someone who said they “could do this job in their sleep” and was upset about the fact that he had to go through hoops to prove it. Your resume can show you could do the job, but the cover letter can tell the story about how you can do the job. If you can “do this job in their sleep” and you don’t get the job, then you need to do some serious soul-searching as to why you can’t communicate that to a hiring manager.

5. Cover letters make your case; the resume proves it

The cover letter tells the story of how you can do the work. The cover letter ties the parts of your resume together to show the common thread of qualifications for the job. Then you move to the resume and the resume makes the case for you getting the interview.

I was in high school debate (did pretty well, too) and the first affirmative’s job was to make the case for change. The second affirmative’s job was to describe the plan and prove how it solved the problems. Here, the cover letter makes the case and the resume shows how it fulfills the qualifications you presented.

Every tool, every time

Look, I get that you can send out ten more resumes for every cover letter you write. You might think that makes you more productive and helps you feel like you are doing a wide job search. But you know what? Everyone is doing that. Few are taking the time to write the cover letter that will differentiate them from the masses and speak directly to the hiring manager. You won’t get an interview for every job application even if you write a cover letter, of course.

But you will get more interviews compared to others who don’t. A powerful little tool, that cover letter.

  • Right on! I’ve seen cover letters make the difference many times. Just because not every company values them doesn’t mean the one you’re applying to won’t.

  • Nice post Scot! My philosophy is that the cover letter serves as the “opening act” for your resume. You might prefer dental surgery without Novocain to writing a cover letter (well, maybe not), but as you say, the cover letter can set you apart and pique the hiring manager’s interest in your resume.

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