In the last few months, I have received so many questions about cover letters. People have asked me, are they important? Do people read them? Are they worthwhile? Who sees them? Should they be customized? etc, Due to all of the questions, I thought I would write a blog on the subject to provide insight into what HR professionals think and a few tips to make sure yours shines.
Are cover letters important?
Generally speaking, cover letters are important when evaluating a candidate since these are meant to show the reader why you, as a candidate, feel that you are qualified for the role. The reader is looking for how you highlight your specific background and skills as they relate to the job description. Two important things to consider are: Lack of a cover letter, when the job application calls for it, could disqualify you from the application process and also a terribly written/unfocused cover letter could also put you in the “no call back” pile.
Do people read cover letters?
Typically people scan a cover letter quickly to see the key points. Since most cover letters are generally not tailored as well as they could be to the job being applied for, many HR professionals have gotten used to seeing a standard one, where clearly, the company name has been copy and pasted in. For these cover letters, you can tell that candidates probably have sent the same one to hundreds of companies, each time, just replacing one name for the next. However, when a candidate submits one that is highly tailored, it almost always gets read, and more importantly, separates the candidate from the pack.
Who sees a cover letter in a company?
The Human Resources (HR) manager generally has access to cover letters and reads these along with the resumes for candidates applying for roles. The hiring manager may or may not see the cover letter, depending upon how the HR person has set up the hiring process. If a company is working with a recruitment firm to fill roles, the recruiter at the recruitment firm will see the cover letter. They may or may not send this to the company along with the candidate’s resume if they submit the candidate for the role. With Propel, we generally do our own write-up of a candidate which is tailored for the role that we are submitting them for. Therefore, we typically do not share cover letters unless specifically requested by the companies we work with.
Are cover letters worthwhile?
I think they are for a few reasons.
1. By doing a cover letter, it forces the candidate to think through their relevance to the role. If you are finding it really hard to relate your background to the role, then you are probably not a fit.
2. The cover letter shows the HR professional what you are trying to share about your background and why these skills are relevant for the role being applied for. It tells your story as it relates to your application. They can infer your thought process from the words that you list on paper, and this will either be good for you (i.e. lead to an interview) or disqualify you for the role.
3. Cover letters also help to explain aspects of your background that the HR person may have questions on. For example, if you live in Ohio, but are applying for roles in Boston, your cover letter should explain why you are applying in Boston. Do you have family there, did you used to live there, is your significant other relocating there, etc. If you have always worked for a large company (>10,000 people) and are applying for a role at a startup (<10 people), you should explain in the cover letter why your background would prepare you for an entrepreneurial organization. If you have an immunology background and you are applying for oncology focused roles, explain why your skills are relevant and transferrable.
Should cover letters be customized to a specific job?
Yes. Yes. Yes. As a job candidate, you are very fortunate since the job description provides you with details about what the company is looking for. You already have the “must have” requirements and “nice to have” requirements. If you fit these, then let the company know it. Too many people assume that the HR professional will be able to infer that they have the right experience based on their background. Don’t wait for the HR person to guess – make it blatantly clear that you fit their needs if you, in fact, do. One way to do this is to reiterate the job requirements in the cover letter. Just go one by one. If you end up not having one of the requirements, don’t just gloss over it either. Address it and what you can do to remedy it.
Cover Letter tips
Here are a few tips from reading thousands of cover letters: If someone refers you, mention their name, role, and company in the cover letter. If you found out about this job through a company presentation on your campus, then mention it. If you are applying to a location outside of where you live, explain why in the cover letter. If this is a “stretch position” for you, explain why you feel that you are qualified for a role that is technically a little outside of your experience level or area of expertise. If you are a postdoc or Ph.D., provide an idea of when you could start since your schedules don’t always align with the traditional academic school schedule like they do for MBA’s or Bachelor’s.
Hopefully you find these tips useful. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on other areas of advice that I can assist with. Good luck writing your cover letters!