Why the cover letter matters as much as the résumé

I have the occasional client who pauses when they are told what the investment level is for a cover letter. Why so much, they wonder. Is it really that important?

Let me put it this way: What would happen if you had THE perfect résumé, but then sent along an accompanying cover letter that had grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors? What if you didn’t express thoughts in a clear, compelling way? How would an employer respond to this? If you guessed not favorably, you are right!

Proofreading errors in a cover letter are the number one job prospect killer for résumés and applications. In fact, the same rules for résumés apply for cover letters. They HAVE to be perfect. Cover letters are in equal standing to résumés for the very reason that it tells a lot about a candidate that a résumé can’t communicate.

Whereas a résumé is usually presented more in the abbreviated or ‘telegraph’ style of communication, a cover letter is a premier demonstration of your professional writing skills… much along the lines of how an employer might expect you to communicate via email messages or letters on their behalf, should you come under their employment.

Another key clue to prospective employers that a cover letter delivers is an understanding about the candidate that goes beyond the words on the page. Does the applicant actually ‘get’ what the employer is seeking in applicants for this particular position?

I recall one applicant who sent in a fairly qualified résumé paired with a cover letter that addressed the position we were recruiting, but the person clearly ‘elevated’ themselves to a much higher management role than what the position mandated. It was very clear that there was a disconnect between what the person’s perception of the job duties were, and the ones being sought after.

Another thing employers check is whether the prospective employees follow the application directions. Failure to comply in the specified guidelines could be red flags about how this person might perform in a company – will they do it ‘their way’ or follow company procedures/policies? By failing to follow application guidelines, many job seekers make their own obstacles to employment by getting weeded out simply by not following directions.

Now let’s tackle cover letter content. Earlier in this blog, Ernest White, the human resources professional, wrote about addressing skills. The cover letter is the prime spot to relate the skills and keywords of the job position to your experience. This component should be straight to the point, compelling, and make the reader want to read your résumé. One technique I use when teaching résumé-writing classes is to create the following equation to illustrate this point:

cover letter (why hire me) + resume (the facts) = the job

Personalization is also a key component of a cover letter. If the job opening has a generic “Attention Human Resources Manager” person to direct your application to, spend the time to try and ‘dig’ out a name. Call the company and ask the switchboard operator outright what the name of the HR director is. Google them on the Internet- chances are the person’s name is mentioned in a press release when making high-profile hiring announcements. The person might be also a member of the local human resource professional association. Or, you might even find the person’s name listed in an online business networking group like LinkedIn. Any steps you can take to personalize the cover letter and direct it to an actual human being is important. It could be that 99% of the other candidates submit their applications to “Human Resource Manager” and yours comes in addressed to Jane Smith, HR Manager. Don’t you think that Jane might be at all curious as to how you got her name?

Finally, this introductory document should only be one page – no dissertations, please. Remember, you have the short span of mere seconds to either capture employer interest or get tossed into the rejection pile. You need to be concise, relevant, demonstrate an understanding of the job opening and be able to relate your skills as a solution to their staffing problem. It is a lot to do, but critical to making the pitch to employers as to why they should hire you.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that your cover letter should never be a litany of your skills nor should it repeat what you’ve already stated in greater detail in your résumé. You have to position yourself in the following ways: knowledgeable about their company, a perfect match to the skills that they need, and capture interest to compel the reader to turn to your résumé for greater detail. It’s a tough thing to accomplish in just one page, which makes this document just as important as your résumé.

In short, cover letters can reveal a lot to employers, or they can show nothing at all. But remember, even nothing can show you something, so it is important that you realize that the cover letter is important and needs to be as perfect as your résumé!