The Real Purpose of a Cover Letter
Though cover letters have long been part of the job application process, the rules of crafting the perfect letter remain vague at best.
If the resume is a space to list your relevant work experience, then what more should you include in your cover letter? Should it just restate what’s in the resume? And beyond the content, what guidelines are there for the tone and length of the cover letter, if any?
Before we can sort out the real rules for cover letters from the misguided ones, it’s essential to understand the purpose that cover letters serve today in the digital age.
“You have to imagine a hiring manager going through 100 applications and making the decision whether to click or download the resume that’s attached,” said Penelope Trunk, a popular blogger and CEO of the Brazen Careerist, a career management site. “The point of a cover letter is to get them to open that attachment, and the goal of the resume is to get them to interview you.”
For that reason, Trunk and other experts say that the cover letter is a necessity, but the rules that some follow when crafting these letters are often mistaken.
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Repeat What's in the Resume
If for no other reason than time constraints, some job applicants may tend to fill their cover letter with much of the same information that is already in their resume. But should the cover letter simply restate what’s been said in the resume or should it do something more?
More than anything, the goal of the cover letter is to make your case to the company that you are a good candidate, and then to use the resume to provide a broader overview of your experience that supports this claim.
“You don’t need to use your cover letter to repeat what you already have in your resume,” said Samantha Zupan, spokesperson for Glassdoor, a career site. “Instead, take a step back and use the cover letter to give your high level message about what you can do for the company and to highlight some of your achievements.”
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Make It Less Than A Page
A common misperception when writing a resume is that it must be less than a page long, but as MainStreet has reported, this stems more from a time when hiring managers had to print out the application, and it was considered bad form to make them print out more than a page. Resumes can be longer than a page today, if necessary, but do cover letters have the same luxury?
When it comes to cover letters, brevity is still of the utmost importance.
“The cover letter should not be more than half a page because then the person reading it has to scroll down in the email to keep reading,” Trunk said.
In fact, the resume should be even shorter than that. According to Trunk and others we spoke with, the typical cover letter only needs to include one or two paragraphs that explain the candidate’s strengths and his or her most significant accomplishments to date.
“You definitely do not need to include your whole life’s story,” Trunk said.
The only exception to this rule is if one needs to explain away issues on their resume like a long period of unemployment or a lack of qualifications that could otherwise turn off potential employers. In such cases, one might come closer to writing a page-long cover letter.
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Show Your Personality
In order to stand out from the rest of the applicants, one may be tempted to insert a few witty lines or jokes into his or her cover letter to infuse it with more personality, but does this do more to help or hurt the applicant’s chances at landing the position?
If you have a snappy lead-in that you use for all your cover letters, now may be the time to retire it. These lines often prove to be risky for applicants if they aren’t received well by the person reading it.
“There’s a fine line between personalizing the cover letter and trying to be humorous only to miss the point completely with the person who reads it,” Zupan said. “If you overthink what your intro line should be, you may end up losing your opportunity to show the person that you’re the best person for the job.”
Trunk is even more adamant against being witty.
"Cover letters are not where you show off your personality,” she said. “The hiring manager is just looking for people to bring in to interview and trying to screen out morons. They’re not looking for personalities.”
Instead of personalizing the letter, the career experts emphasize the importance of customizing it to include details about how you went about finding the position in the first place and why you think you’re a unique fit for it.
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Begin With A Formal Greeting
Look up any cover letter template on the Web and most will have a pretty standard format: a mailing address at the top of the page for the person you’re sending it to, followed by a formal greeting that says Dear Mr. or Ms. Employer.
Verdict: Fact (with caveats)
Even in the age of email, formality is still required, but it’s important to be mindful of the kind of formal greeting you use. While it’s recommended that applicants begin their cover letters with “Dear,” it’s better to be as specific as possible in whom you address the letter to, rather than just saying “Dear sir.”
“When someone applies to my company, a cover letter addressed to me rather than ‘Dear sir’ gets much more attention,” said Tory Johnson, a career expert and founder of WomenForHire.com. “Use sites like LinkedIn or just cold call the company to find the name of the hiring manager instead of saying ‘Dear sir.’ Show some initiative.”
As for including a physical address at the top of the letter, this much can usually be scrapped, unless it’s specifically called for in the job posting, nor do you need to include your own unless it’s asked for.
“You should just get straight into the letter,” Zupan said. “But be sure to include your email address and phone number at some point.”
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Always Include Salary and Relocation Information
The issue of salary and relocating for a position will likely come up at some point during the job interview or after, but should candidates try to hit on these points in their cover letter to show they are serious about the position?
According to Zupan, the best bet is to save the salary talk for another day once you’ve already had the opportunity to make a positive impression on the employer.
As for the issue of showing your interest in the position by promising to relocate, Trunk has a few choice words for this strategy.
“Don’t add anything they don’t ask for in the posting,” she said, before adding, “they won’t think you’re special just because you’re willing to relocate.”
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Spelling and Grammar Errors Can Kill Your Chances
If you’re writing dozens of cover letters or working on job applications after work, chances are you’ll make a grammatical error once in a while, but can one or two of these mistakes really kill your chances at landing the job?
Unfortunately, these kind of mistakes, inevitable as they may be, do have the potential to seriously hurt your standing with the hiring manager handling your application.
“I’ve seen a number of cover letters and resumes where words like ‘manager’ are misspelled as ‘manger,’” Zupan said. “Those details can result in your application being passed over because it sends a message that this is something you’re not really that focused on.”
As a result, Zupan and the other career experts recommend spell checking and grammar checking your application several times before clicking send.
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Write A Catchy Subject Line
The quickest way to get your cover letter and application to stand out from the pack of applications in the hiring manager’s inbox might be to write a bold or unique subject line that catches their eye, but does this mean one should get creative with the name of the email?
As tempting as it might be to make your subject line something like, “The best job application you’ll ever read!” you’re better off playing it straight.
“You don’t need a subject head that grabs the hiring manager, their job is to open emails. You just want to make sure they put you in the right pile,” Trunk said. “It should just say the candidate job description in one word and that’s it.”
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