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Do Employers Really Want A Cover Letter

Is the cover letter finally dead?

This will forever change how you apply for jobs.

You’ve surely been in this scenario: You’ve poured your blood, sweat and tears into crafting the perfect resume, and just as you’re ready to attach it to your job application and click send, you come across this line: Cover letter (optional).

Ergh. Talk about a pull-your-hair-out kind of moment. You’re wondering: “Do I really need to submit one? Does it hurt my chances if I don’t? Besides, does anyone even read these anymore?” Ask and you shall receive.

We spoke with recruiters and career experts to find out whether cover letters are still relevant in today’s job market and what you really need to get ahead in the interview process.

The verdict is...drumroll please…

Sara Brooke, a recruiter at Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) in Nashville, Tennessee, confirms what you suspect: Recruiters don’t read cover letters and hiring managers don’t have time to—they only spend six seconds reading your resume as it is.

In most cases, your resume does not go straight to the hiring manager. Rather, it often goes to a recruiter who then reviews your qualifications and follows up with a phone call to screen you. The recruiter essentially takes on the responsibility of selling the hiring manager on why you’re a good match for the job.

“In a way, you can say that we have become the cover letter,” says Brooke.

Not to mention, considering how big of a role social media is playing in the recruiting process, the cover letter is very likely becoming obsolete. A recent study by the Society For Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 84% of employers use social media to recruit job applicants. Why? It’s quicker, saves productivity and revenue, and it allows companies to scout A-grade talent that may not be actively looking for a job.

If the job does in fact require a cover letter, keep in mind that only 18% of hiring managers rank the cover letter as an important element of the hiring process, Addison Group, a Boston-based employment agency, found.

So if the cover letter is a no-go, what can you do to stand out?

Add this in place of your cover letter

The point of a cover letter is to build a bridge between yourself and the hiring manager. It shows you have something to say, that you know about the job and are interested in working for the company, says Martin Yate, author Knock ’em Dead: The Ultimate Job Search Guide.

Today’s digital landscape allows you to accomplish all that and more. Experts suggest designing an eye-catching resume or building a portfolio with relevant examples.

Brooke also advises you to provide solid references and get a letter of recommendation. References are a great opportunity for someone to say to the hiring manager that you were a good employee in your last position—and here is the proof.

Focus your time and energy on your resume

Recruiters say it takes an average of 60 seconds to decide whether a candidate is viable on paper. Since your resume is only given a glance, Brooke says recruiters focus on figuring out whether you have the skill set, education and years of experience required for the job—so make sure your resume has those answers.

Submitting a cover letter? Make sure you do it right

While cover letters may be on the decline, Shannon Nolde, lead recruiter at Zendesk, a software development company in San Francisco, says they have more value in specific jobs and industries—e.g., a creative job in marketing, public relations or content fields where writing is prevalent.

If this is the case for you, Tim Windhof, executive resume writer at Windhof Career Services in Columbus, Ohio, says your cover letter should address the following: how you learned of the opportunity, how your qualifications match the job requirements, your possible availability in the area and how you can be contacted.

If you’re still debating about whether you should spend the time writing a cover letter, Brooke advises that you ask yourself, “What's more important, a paragraph explaining why you want the job, or bulleted facts in your resume or portfolio that show you have the skills to do this job?”

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I recently went to the Partnerships for Employmentjob fair at RIM Park in Waterloo, Ont., to ask 20 recruiters and HR professionals if they read cover letters and, if so, what they are looking for.

Of the 20 employers I spoke with:

  • 12 said they read the cover letter of each applicant
  • of those 12, six read the cover letter before the resumé and four read the cover letter after the resumé
  • four employers claimed they quickly scanned the resumé
  • four employers admitted to not reading the cover letter at all

Only one employer out of the 20 I surveyed said they preferred to receive no cover letter.  Whether it gets read, skimmed or ignored, it seems like the cover letter is still an essential part of a job application that shows you have made the time and effort to apply for the position.

Writing a cover letter can be tricky business.  To identify some key cover letter do’s and don’t, I asked the same group of 20 employers what they look for in a cover letter.

Employers want to see these things in your cover letters:

  • Include your degree title and school in the first paragraph
  • Include the title of the position you’re applying for and the company name in the first paragraph
  • Make a personalized letter, if possible (do not write, “To whom it may concern…”)
  • List the company name and address in formal letter style
  • Not more than one page
  • No grammar or spelling mistakes
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the company to show the recruiter you’ve done some research
  • Create a targeted letter (if you’ve sent the same form letter to 10 companies, don’t expect a call back)
  • Highlight related skills and experiences, but don’t copy word for word from your resumé
  • Elaborate on related skills or experiences
  • Include something unique about yourself

Based on the information I gathered from each employer, the most important part about writing a cover letter is to demonstrate that you have made a unique effort. Show the employer you understand what position you are applying for, what company you are applying to, and how your skills and experience relate to the job position.

This kind of research takes time and effort on your part, but can be easily recognized from a generic cover letter sent out to 10 different companies.

Although there is no perfect formula for writing a cover letter, if you are able to demonstrate your understanding and enthusiasm for the position and company you are applying to, you will be on your way to landing an interview.

Photo credit: Partnerships for Employment

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