Job-seekers frequently ask me “must I write cover letters when I apply for jobs?” The answer is that they should have a cover letter draft they can customize to focus on the needs of each prospective employer. It is a good idea to be prepared even if employers in your industry or job function do not commonly require cover letters with resumes and online applications.
A Cover Letter is a Business Letter.
Most of us do not write traditional letters anymore because the majority of transactions we conduct are online. As a result, we find letter-writing daunting. It isn’t.
An accepted business practice many of us learned was to always send an explanatory note or letter with any document we sent to another office or company. For example, if we sent a contract to another company, we wrote a short letter with the document. The letter directed our paperwork to a specific person, reminded them what the document was, specified that we needed a signature, and asked them to return the signed original.
Today, business people can be deluged with thousands of electronic messages and documents daily. This, to me, makes it more important than ever to send an introductory letter with any formal document, especially if the recipient does not know us.
A resume is a business document, so an introductory letter, or cover letter, is appropriate. The elements of a cover letter for your resume include:
- Addressing your letter to a specific person,
- Telling the addressee what we are sending them—a resume,
- Informing them why we are sending the resume—we wish to apply for a job they are filling,
- Giving the reader a reason to read the enclosed document,
- advising the reader of what we want to happen next—we would like to meet for an interview,
- Thanking the recipient in advance for their time, and
- Identifying ourselves along with contact information.
It is more courteous to include a cover letter than to send a document with no explanation even if the document, and the reason for sending it, is self-explanatory.
Address Your Letter to a Specific Person
I’ve seen job-seekers direct letters “to whom this may concern.” This reads like a form letter to me. It does not establish a personal connection with the reader.
Locate someone to whom the letter should be directed whenever possible. Try to identify the head of the function or business unit you want to work for, rather than directing the letter to human resources.
Helene, a prospective college professor I worked with sent her letter to the Director of Student Teaching, and addressed her by name. She was interviewed and hired.
Tell Your Reader What You Are Sending.
The most important thing you can do is direct your letter to the correct person, but the next steps are also important. Let the reader know what you are sending. For example, Helene wrote “It is with great interest that I am applying with the enclosed resume for the position of Field Supervisor in Major College for the fall, 2014 semester.”
Explain Why You Are Sending the Document.
The sentence above also explains why she was sending the resume. It is important to mention the specific job you are applying for because large organizations may advertise dozens of jobs at one time. No one will take the time to figure out what job you are applying for, and then match your correspondence with your online application.
Offer a More Detailed Explanation.
The next paragraph in Helene’s letter elaborated on why the college should hire her to supervise student teachers. It drew on accomplishments from her resume to build a case:
“My achievements as an administrator and teacher evaluator include supervising and supporting the faculty as Principal of North Woods Elementary School and the Early Childhood School. In addition, I served as Teacher Evaluator for Teachers’ College at Ivy League University. District leadership and parents have recognized accomplishments such as;
- Supervising more than 20 student teachers, many of whom have asked me to observe them and offer feedback to improve their teaching,
- Evaluating teacher performance at all schools in the District.
- Doubling the size of the Early Childhood School by obtaining key New York State and Federal grants,
- Beginning the Special Education program at the Early Childhood School, and
- Creating a Science Expo program at North Woods School to encourage gifted and other students to explore STEM subjects in greater depth.”
She can substitute different accomplishments to better meet the requirements in specific job postings.
Describe What You Want to Happen Next.
Every business letter should tell the reader what the writer wants to happen next. The purpose of our cover letter is to request an interview. We wrote in this letter “As a result, I will bring a great deal of expertise to your student teaching program. You may contact me at (000) 000-0000 or via firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a meeting at your convenience where we can discuss ways I could contribute to your Department.”
Formal business letters also thank the reader “in advance” for their attention. This business courtesy should be observed.
Usually, I recommend that job candidates paste the header from their resume onto the top of the cover letter. This ensures consistent identification and contact information on both the resume and letter.
Common business letter formats also allow the writer to place the telephone number and email address under the signature. Choose one of these two approaches—not both—to avoid being redundant.
Sometimes You Do not Need the Cover Letter.
Cover letters are not always needed. For example, if you got the interview without sending a resume and cover letter, you do not need to bring a cover letter to the interview. You are the cover letter when you go to the interview with your resume. You also do not need to provide a cover letter at job fairs.
Job-seekers have told me on several occasions that their industries do not use cover letters. Tomoko Ha, a career coach and owner of TKO Consulting told me that, based on her experience as a hiring manager, universities and public agencies make use of cover letters to understand why you want the job. She suggested that you ask your industry contacts whether they look at cover letters before you invest your time in letter writing.
A cover letter is the kind of business letter most of us rarely write today. Nonetheless, it is a key part of your job search strategy, because it helps ensure that your resume reaches the decision-maker. We are here to work with you on cover letters, in addition to resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Click here for a complimentary appointment to discuss your cover letter, resume, and LinkedIn profile plan