By Lee Miller
February 21, 2010
Are cover letters important when you are applying for a job? Career experts have very strong points of view when it comes to this question. Unfortunately their opinions are all over the lot.
Jane Angelich, formerly vice president of human resources at investment banking firm Salomon Brothers, believes “the cover letter is more important than the résumé.” According to Angelich, “if the cover letter didn’t grab me, I never got to the résumé.”
She recalled an instance where a cover letter moved her enough to invite a candidate in for an interview. “His résumé, without the cover letter, looked like every other one that I received for the prestigious and high-paying training class we offered. He made me want to meet him because of that cover letter, and I hired him.”
Susan Cucuzza, a business coach with Live Forward and formerly an HR executive with Textron, has a different view.
“In my entire human resources career of interviewing and hiring thousands of individuals, I may have read a few dozen cover letters, most of which provided no value,” she states. She doesn’t recommend candidates spend any time on them.
Cucuzza suggests, “Most recruiters and human resources professionals immediately put the cover letter to the side and jump into the résumé itself. Why?
The cover letter doesn’t tell me anything more than what I will find on the résumé.”
The one thing experts agree on is for a cover letter to be useful it has to be personalized and make the candidate stand out in a way that is relevant to the job being filled. It should be addressed to a specific person, clearly indicate the job you are seeking and be focused on the specific needs of the company.
In the words of Donna Flagg, founder of HR consulting firm The Krysalis Group, “Cover letters are only important to the extent that the candidate can make them interesting. Or better said, can make themselves interesting.”
If it is not obvious from your résumé why you are a good candidate for the position or if you have issues such as “job hopping” or large gaps in your employment history, a cover letter will enable you to present yourself in the best possible light.
If that is your situation, though, you might consider using a cover letter by itself, without attaching a résumé.
If the company to which you are applying doesn’t list the name of the hiring manager, there are ways to determine to whom you should send your cover letter. Heather R. Huhman, president of Come Recommended, an online community connecting internship and entry-level job candidates with employers, suggests the following:
- Check LinkedIn and Facebook to determine who might be responsible for hiring for this position.
- Google the company’s name, the position title and “jobs,” “employment,” “human resources” or “careers” to see if they have listed a hiring contact for this type of opening in the past.
- Call the organization and ask the receptionist.
- Contact a current or former employee who can tell you the name of the individual in charge of hiring at your level.
The cover letter is not about you, but rather about what you can do for the company and why you would be a good fit. Review the company’s website and determine what skills and experience make you valuable to the organization.
Sharon Armstrong, author of “The Essential HR Handbook,” suggests a two-column cover letter as a way to demonstrate that fit. The first column heading is “Your Requirements,” which lists each requirement set forth in the job posting.
The corresponding column is “My Qualifications,” which lists how the candidate satisfies each requirement. This format works, according to Armstrong, because:
1. You never know who is screening interviews and you’ve done all their work for them;
2. If the company is scanning, you’ve used all their key words
3. You already have started to prepare yourself for the interview by reviewing your background and how it applies to the needs of that position and the company.
As someone who was a Fortune 1000 head of human resources and never read cover letters but as a career coach advises clients to use them, I would echo the position taken by Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, Vault.com’s career services expert: “The truth is that some recruiters read cover letters and others do not. But since you don’t know which recruiters are reading them, you must write a compelling cover letter which makes the case for why you should be hired.”
A veteran human resources executive, Lee E. Miller is a career coach and the author of “UP: Influence Power and the U Perspective — The Art of Getting What You Want.” Mail questions to Lee@YourCareerDoctors.com.
Read the article in The New Jersey Star-Ledger.