Now that you’ve defined your personal brand and built your executive resume around your promise of value to your target employers, you’re ready to get your resume out there. So you’re facing the cover letter dilemma.
Do you still need a resume cover letter? Or is it a dying relic?
When you respond to job board postings, you probably won’t need a cover letter (unless the application requires one).
But that job search strategy is not the best way to land a good-fit executive job.
Assuming that your main job search strategy is networking, you’ll be sending your resume to select people. You’ll need to introduce it with some kind of covering letter – whether you email it or snail-mail it (less likely).
Although there are executive recruiters and other hiring professionals who will skip right over your cover letters, others will read them religiously.
They judge candidates by their covers letter (or lack of one) as strongly as they do their resumes and online presence.
Survey shows the majority of hiring professionals DO read cover letters
A Wall Street Journal article by Allison Pohle cited a study that found that 87% of hiring professionals surveyed said they DO read cover letters.
For the survey, 7,287 fictitious job applications were sent in response to job postings on various job boards (such as ZipRecruiter, Glassdoor, Indeed). Each application fell into one of these 3 groups:
- No cover letter
- Generic cover letter
- Cover letter customized to the job with details on the candidate’s good-fit qualities
The third group:
- Had a 31% higher callback rate than applications with generic cover letters
- Yielded 53% more interviews than those without cover letters
It just makes sense to include a cover letter
. . . one that’s as hard-hitting and brand-reinforcing as your targeted resume.
My research and experience over the years revealed that NOT having a cover letter may ruin your chances, but HAVING a cover letter will never hurt your chances.
Because so few job seekers (including your competitors) include a cover letter with their resume, if you do, you’ll stand out in a positive way much more than they do.
At the very least, a covering letter or email message is an expected courtesy to the reader, and clarifies why you’re writing to them.
LinkedIn News Senior Editor Andrew Seaman made clear his feeling about cover letters:
“I’m very biased when it comes to cover letters. I love them. A cover letter is often the part of an application that I look at first when I’m part of a hiring process. Cover letters can reveal the voice of a person, how they communicate, how they think and so much more.
Generally, job search experts recommend you include a cover letter if you’re concerned that your experience won’t stack up against that of others in the applicant pool. For example, a cover letter could be another way to explain to an employer why you’re making a career change.
Or, you may want to include one if you want to get ahead of some biases or concerns that may be baked into the hiring process, such as ageism.”
But some job seekers are rebelling
According to Wall Street Journal reporter Lindsay Ellis, job hunters are taking a stand against sending cover letters:
“Many hiring managers say a sharp cover letter remains one of the best ways to make the case for why you are the right person for the job. Yet many job seekers say the self-promoting exercise is too torturous and time-consuming to be worth the effort for a less-than-dream role. It’s also just plain insulting, they argue, since it’s often an algorithm, not a human, that screens and sorts the applications.”
Job seekers feel that, even when they spend time customizing each cover letter, they still don’t hear back when they apply for jobs.
“Behind all of the cover-letter hate lurks a major disconnect between job seekers and the employers trying to hire them. A recent ResumeLab survey of 200 hiring managers and recruiters found 83% said cover letters were important to deciding whom to hire, especially when it came to understanding why the applicant wanted the job or explaining a career switch or break. Nearly three-quarters said they expected a cover letter even if it wasn’t explicitly asked for.”
The cover letter writing playbook
Allison Pohle also offered several cover letter writing tips in her Wall Street Journal article:
- Create a custom cover letter—even though it is time consuming
- Reread the job posting and do your homework.
- Research who is hiring for the position, so you can personalize the letter.
- Begin your cover letter with an attention-grabbing first paragraph.
- Avoid exclamation points and adverbs.
- Differentiate it from your resume.
- Play up your relevant skills.
- Emphasize what you can do for the company.
- Finish the letter with why you want to work for the company.
- Take the time to review before hitting send.
Pay close attention to the first paragraph
Here are some ways to capture attention in the first paragraph, according to a Career Directors International tip sheet:
Drop a name.
Don’t underestimate the strength of social obligation in a job search. With this approach, you can provide the name of the referring person or a mutual connection, but make sure they are comfortable with you doing so. This approach can also explain your relationship to the organization and describe your motivation for applying for the job. For example, a family legacy in the company or industry and a desire to carry that legacy forward.
Cite recent company news.
Was the company recognized recently? Including a “congratulations” for a recent accomplishment will communicate that you are up to date on the company’s goings-on and sincerely interested in the company. If the reader was recently quoted in a publication, mentioning the quote in the cover letter can create a connection between you and the reader.
Start with a question.
Asking a question grabs employers’ attention regarding your unique value and offerings while meeting the company’s strategic objectives. For example, “Are you seeking a Client Service Operations Manager with a passion for innovation and proven track record in driving high customer satisfaction?”
Have a little fun.
Keep the cover letter very people-friendly and draw out personality while upselling your qualifications. This approach is unique because many cover letters repeat qualifications in a mundane manner and do not bring out the candidate’s personality. For example, rather than starting a cover letter with the typical “I’d love to join your team” mantra, change things up and begin with the likes of, “Your team motto rocks!”
My tips to write a knockout resume cover letter
You want your cover letter to position you as a good hiring choice, and you want people to actually read it, along with your attached resume.
Customize the salutation.
Send it to an actual person, putting their name in the salutation. “Dear Sir”, “Dear Madam”, or “To Whom It May Concern” won’t do.
Identify people at your target companies, or those associated with them, to whom you’ll send your letter, with your attached resume or other appropriate materials.
Personalize the letter for the employer.
Customize it for each employer. One sure way to have your letter overlooked is to use a template, sending generic content to each employer.
A cover letter is an opportunity to zero in on your ability to solve specific problems that company is experiencing . . . even more specifically than you will in your targeted resume.
For added oomph, mention each company by name within the body of the letter once or twice.
Don’t just rehash your resume.
Simply rehashing your resume in the cover letter can have a negative impact.
Your cover letter should be regarded and written as one more stand-alone personal marketing piece in your brand communications plan, supporting your brand and good-fit qualities for the company.
Use job descriptions, if possible.
Even though I don’t advise spending a lot of time responding to job boards, there is good reason the peruse job descriptions.
Well-written job descriptions that look like a good mutual fit are valuable resources for composing cover letters that will hit home.
Use the same keywords in your cover letters, providing specific examples of your contributions and expertise, matching their needs with your promise of value in those areas.
Get some vibrancy and energy in there.
Generate chemistry and entice them to want to read your attached resume, by touching on your personal brand attributes (personality, passions, motivating strengths, etc.).
Different readers require different kinds of cover letters.
The thrust of cover letters should vary to meet specific circumstances and compel specific readers. For instance, a cold-call letter may have a different focus and read a bit differently than a referral letter.
Some cover letter content can be re-used.
Because you’re focusing your search towards one kind of job, you may be able to re-use some of your cover letter messaging from one letter to the next, customizing the introductory paragraph and elsewhere as needed.
Point people to your most important assets.
Since even the people who insist on cover letters will probably just skim over them, make the 3-4 most important things about your good-fit stand out by using bullet points. And, just as with your resume (and LinkedIn profile), include plenty of white space to keep eyes moving down the page.
Keep it short, but impactful.
Keep it brief. Short intro, 2 or 3 qualifying paragraphs, 3 or four short bullet points, and one closing paragraph. I also like to add a P.S. that includes a compelling quote, because it will capture attention.
How to email your cover letter.
Since most resumes are sent via email, most cover letters will be, too.
Should you send your cover letter as an attachment or within the email message itself?
Unless you’re sending your cover letter and resume in response to job postings on a job board, it’s best to include your cover letter within the body of the email. This will:
- Eliminate the possibility of an attachment landing in spam or junk mail. People often set up their incoming email to reject unknown or unauthorized messages with attachments, to avoid viruses.
- Make it easier for people to skim through and get a feel for you before opening your attached resume. This helps you sell yourself and entice people before they even get to the real meat in your resume.
Try an old method.
An “old is new again” approach to sending your resume is to snail-mail it flat, in a 9 x 12 inch envelope, with the cover letter paper-clipped on top.
It all comes back to step one in launching any successful executive job search campaign – narrowing your search and knowing your target audience, then researching your list of target companies to determine their needs and how you can solve their problems.
More About Resumes and Executive Job Search