There is no consensus among recruiters and career coaches as to when, or if, you should use a cover letter when applying for a job. Some insist that a cover letter is a must-have every time you submit a résumé. Others say that the résumé is sufficient, and a cover letter is irrelevant. The reality is, while you may be missing out on a marketing opportunity if you apply for a job without a cover letter, if you are judged to be among the most qualified applicants, most recruiters won’t hold it against you if you don’t—in fact, many cover letters routinely go unread.
There are, of course, specific situations where you don’t have much of a choice in the matter:
· When the posting requires it— When a position you are applying for requests a cover letter, you have no choice but to comply if you hope to receive serious consideration. The recruiter will ask him/herself, fairly or unfairly, ‘ If this person can’t do what they’ve been asked as an applicant, can I reasonably expect that they will do what’s asked as an employee?’
· When you’re changing careers—If you have a background in accounting but are applying for a position in sales, a cover letter becomes an important tool to help the recruiter understand why you’re interested and how your skills will transfer to the new role.
· When there’s something you need to explain—Are you living in Peoria but relocating to Bangor and looking for work there? Have you been out of the job market for an extended period of time? Are you an experienced professional applying for an entry-level position? These are all situations where including a cover letter might benefit a job seeker.
If a cover letter is required or if you feel that you need one, here are some important guidelines to consider:
· It should be flawless. Like your résumé, spelling, grammar, punctuation or syntax errors will ruin your chances. Also, don’t rely solely on spell check. Be mindful of the fact that no computer program does a better job of proofreading than a human with good command of the language.
· It should add value. A poorly written cover letter has the potential to hurt you more than a well-written cover letter will help you. This means you’ll need to go beyond simply proofreading. If you are going to invest the time in writing a cover letter, it needs to add value to your candidacy rather than subtracting value.
· It should be complementary. That is, a strong cover letter should complement a strong resume. If you don’t have a strong résumé, your cover letter will do little to help you.
· It should be concise. While there may not be consensus on the overall need for a cover letter, there is general agreement that it should be brief. If your letter is longer than four 2-3 sentence paragraphs, it is probably too long.
To write a cover letter with strong content, try thinking like a consultant. Consultants are often asked to respond to a Request for Proposal (RFP) when being considered for a new opportunity. In addition to background information, the body of the RFP response briefly describes their understanding of the business problem, and outlines some specifics as to how they would go about solving that problem. Try to think of the job description as the RFP. Your cover letter—the response—should describe to the reader how you’ll solve the business problem presented in the description. This shows an understanding of your skills, an understanding of the company’s challenges, and how you’ll tackle them. This is the sort of letter that adds value to an application, and helps you stand out—in a positive way.
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