Yes, You Need a Cover Letter — and Two Tips About That

I recently had a friend (willing to let me tell this story) come to me desperate for help on a resume, having been out of work for a year and a half. Needless to say, this feeling was completely justified, even though this person is certainly not alone in the circumstance.

No matter what anyone is saying, I know from firsthand, secondhand — I guess multiple-hand — experience that the U.S. job market is still horrendous. An entire office I was formerly employed by was just shut down one day without warning — tra-la-la — so yeah, I know.

“I just haven’t had any luck,” this person told me. “Not a single call or email. And I’ve sent my resume everywhere.”

“OK, we’ll get it figured out,” I said. “Let’s meet up. Bring me your resume and at least one of the cover letters you’ve been sending.”

“All I have is my resume. I haven’t been sending cover letters.”

[Insert awkward pause here.]

English: Facepalm photo

And this too. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, not to put myself out of the job, but I’m fairly certain that this person would’ve at the very least received one email in the span of 18 months had a cover letter been submitted along with the resume. At least one. Even if nothing else came of it.

I was shocked, to say the very least. I thought this was common knowledge: You absolutely need a cover letter with every application, at least for every position you hope to be offered…which, to translate, is 100% of the positions you’re applying for — or else why are you even bothering to apply?

Maybe you didn’t need one back in the day. Admittedly, maybe you don’t need one if you’ve been referred to an opportunity by a recruiter, friend or colleague — have an “inside connection,” so to speak. (I’d still recommend it regardless, however, because you’ll likely still have some competition — competition that might be submitting cover letters.) But in most circumstances today, for most of us, a cover letter and resume are the absolute bare minimum.

Why? It’s simple. Other people out there — aka your competition — have upped the ante. As long as a single applicant includes a cover letter, you have no choice but to include one just to be able to compete against that person, like it or not.

English: A 20-year-old cat that looks tired be...

Way to ruin it for the rest of us, bro! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unless your name is Bill Gates, you will be weeded out immediately if you haven’t included a cover letter with your resume. If your name is Bill Gates, your chances are only slightly better: unless you are THE Bill Gates, someone will look at your resume for approximately 5 seconds before discarding it. I had a prospective employer flat-out tell me that’s exactly what the company did just to narrow the interviewing pool down to a manageable size. More than 200 resumes had come in for the single position I’d also applied for. Only 50 or so had cover letters. Only those 50 were considered (however briefly or lengthily) for the position.

Employers are swamped today with oodles upon oodles of both qualified and unqualified candidates throwing their hats in the rings for a paycheck. Most of the time, you will have only one chance to connect with the person who has the power to hire and pay you, and no matter how good your resume is, a resume alone won’t do it. It’s a resume, Jim, not a doctor!

Promotional photo of the cast of Star Trek dur...

Get it straight! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A resume tells prospective employers (or at least should be telling prospective employers) what positions you’ve held in your career and what you did differently (read “better”) than others while at your various places of employ. And that’s great, but it doesn’t tell them why you want to work for them in particular and how your abilities connect specifically with what it is they need to get done. It doesn’t generally have much of a personality or voice, the likes of which would be particularly helpful when HR managers are trying to get a sense of whether or not your disposition would be a good fit with their company cultures.

That’s what a cover letter is for.

“Man, that seems like it would take a heck of a long time to do every time I try to apply for a job,” you might be thinking.

Cologne Cathedral Bell

DING, DING, DING! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You’d be correct. It does take time, especially if writing doesn’t come easily to you.

Here’s what you can do.

1) Get a versatile template created.

Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting you create one letter and simply swap out one company’s name for another and send away — although if that’s your bag, I certainly can’t stop you. But I am suggesting that you get one draft down that shows some of your *very professional* personality while also highlighting the main skills you possess that will appeal to most of the HR managers in your field.

Marcu Juggling

So, the opposite of this, unless you’re a clown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How can you find out what they’re interested in? Read a job description; you should be doing this anyway. If you’re applying to a sales job, nearly every job posting will ask for excellent communication skills, people skills, and a proven track record of success (i.e., numbers, numbers, numbers). Knowing that, make sure that you highlight those accomplishments specifically in your cover letter, telling the stories of your success in each area, not just delivering bulletpoint after bulletpoint a la your resume. Tell companies what you’ve already done and what you can do for them.

Don’t forget to include a sentence or two indicating why you’re applying for that position specifically and why that company in particular appeals to you. Also make sure you include your contact information, links to any relevant websites (professional site, LinkedIn page, etc.) and a quick thanks to the person you’re submitting it to for reading the letter and considering you as a candidate.

What I like to do is take a job description and make sure that I’ve done my best to speak to each requirement a company has specified in its job description in my cover letter. Because I’ve spent my entire career pretty much in one field (writing), there tends to be a lot from previously drafted letters that I am able to apply to current ones I’m writing. I still always make sure I bring something new to each letter I’m writing, though — if not because I’ve found a little something unique in a particular job post I should address, then because I’m always working on improving upon earlier versions of my letters to make them sound better.

“But, Raegen,” you might be thinking, “doesn’t that take an exorbitant amount of time?”


“Like, that’s a lot of sand you’re talking!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It can. Which brings me to my second point.

2) Don’t apply to everything.

Yes, I know it’s rough out there. Yes, I know you needed a job, like, yesterday, last week, last year, prior to your birth.

I’ve been out of a job, too. Believe me, I get it.

But don’t bother applying to everything. That’s the only way to be able to have time to write a cover letter that’ll do you any good. Plus, like me, you probably have plenty of other “real-life” obligations constantly simmering, so be smart with that precious resource of your time.

Spend it on opportunities that really interest you or ones that your previous experience will help you land, even if the thought of another fill-in-the-blank job has your stomach churning. In the latter case, you’ll be able to get a paycheck while trying to make a transition into another line of work. In the former case, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble working full-time yet still having to continue your job hunt because you took a position you sincerely knew from the get-go you’d never be happy in.

Needless to say, I worked with my friend to create not just a killer resume, but a versatile cover letter template to help that person not just be able to get a foot in the door, but to be able to continue to do so alone using the tips I provided above. Because while not everyone is cut out to be a wordsmith, everyone deserves to feel empowered through “learning how to fish,” so to speak, and becoming able to take some amount of charge over their professional identities on paper.

I’m looking forward to this person’s inevitable tale of success.


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Filed under Resumes & Cover Letters

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