One of the most common questions I’m asked by executive-level clients is “is a cover letter really necessary?” I can certainly see why they may think it’s not. These letters have gained a reputation for something employers don’t read, many candidates hate writing them, and a lot of people just don’t see the purpose. Though there are some valid points to these arguments, a cover letter is still a necessity.
To acknowledge the first part, studies show that about a third of readers admit they never read cover letters. Another third go back and read them if the resume captures their attention. The final third starts with the cover letter, and use it to decide if they should go on to read the resume. Of course, since you never know what category the person who receives your resume will fall into, it’s best to include a well-written cover letter.
The second challenge is that many people just hate writing cover letters! They spend all their time and energy putting a resume together, and the cover letter feels like an afterthought. The good news is that when it comes to these documents LESS IS MORE. Nobody wants to read a wordy letter, so the more concise it is, the more likely to capture someone’s attention. Three to four short paragraphs is all you need, and I often make one of these a bulleted highlights section.
Still, if someone clearly states their qualifications on the resume, who cares about the cover letter? With so much competition for each job, employers are bound to have multiple candidates with the same skill set. The cover letter provides an additional opportunity to explain why you should be considered. If this is what it comes down to, the person who expressed their interest in the organization will get an interview over the person who used a boilerplate letter (or worse, didn’t include one at all).
Consider this true story: Michelle Obama was called in for an interview with the City of Chicago after Valerie Jarrett read her cover letter. She was impressed with her story – the fact that she wanted to leave a high-powered law firm to serve the city. This type of detail could not have been brought out in the resume.
Just remember, the first draft is the hardest part of writing a cover letter. Once you have a template created, you’ll only need to tweak a few sentences to customize it for each organization.