One of the most common questions I get asked in both one-on-one client meetings and workshops is related to the cover letter.  Are cover letters necessary any more, or have they gone the way of the dodo and, potentially, the business card?  Does anyone read them any more?

I’ve conducted some ad hoc research (just to be clear, this has been in no way done scientifically!) over the last year or so.  I’ve asked HR and recruiting professionals as well as a significant number of clients that have exited out of “hiring manager” positions at the managerial and executive level.

Basically, there are 2 camps and they each seem to be about 50% of the total.  One camp skips the cover letter and goes straight to the resume.  The other camp reads the cover letter and then decides if they are even going to look at the resume.  A large portion of this camp also eliminates any candidates that do not provide a cover letter.  The thought process seems to be “If the individual didn’t spend the time to create a cover letter, why should I consider them for my opening?”  This take on things is certainly not new.

So, creating a cover letter seems to be a waste of time about 50% of the time!  What about the other 50% of the time?  What are these readers looking for?  This boils down to 3 things:

  1. Spelling and Grammar: Are “accuracy” and “attention to detail” important on the job?  If so, then it will be something that the reader is interested in.  The individual’s resume may be “professionally” done and will almost certainly have been proofread by a family member or friend.  The cover letter, on the other hand, will less likely to have gone through as much scrutiny and hence may “represent” the individual more accurately.
  2. Writing Style: Are written reports and documents going to be an important component of the job?  If so, the hiring team will almost certainly pay attention to your writing style in the cover letter.
  3. Letter Tailoring: This is by far the most important consideration for the people that read cover letters.  They want to know that you took the time to tailor something that addresses their needs.  And if you show that you have the skills, education, and experience, and more importantly, the impacts that they’re looking for, they will then take the time to look at your resume.

Sold on creating cover letters?  If not every time, then I would suggest that you create a cover letter for all of the jobs that you are truly a great fit for, and that you would really like to be interviewed for.  After all, that will increase your chances of getting to the interview.  It can also be a good litmus test.  If you don’t feel like taking the time to put together a customized cover letter, then should you be applying for the job at all?

Alright, now how about the cover letter itself?  What style to use?  Based on client successes and the reactions of exited hiring managers when I show them these two options, there are really only these 2 styles to consider … the “T” cover letter and a modified “T” version (that really isn’t a “T”).

Let’s look at an example of the “T” cover letter first:How to put a “T” cover letter together? 

Either find a template on line (no, I did not invent the “T” cover letter by any stretch of the imagination) or email me and I will send you this template in Word so that you can customize to your own liking.

One of the keys to customizing is getting the most important “requirements” in the left column.  Some postings will have 20 or more requirements.  You can’t address them all as, in most cases, you need to keep the cover letter to one page.  Read each “requirement” carefully.  Figure out who likely wrote it.  If you can address the needs of the hiring manager, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Show how you meet each of the most important requirements in the right column.  The key here is to be specific!  Do not speak in generalities.  The reader wants to know 3 things if you hire them:

  1. Will you have a huge positive impact on my organization/department?  Tell them about your past accomplishments and impacts on other organizations and you’ll peak their interest.
  2. Will you get along with the rest of my team while you’re doing #1?  Simply state the facts in the middle of your cover letter (don’t oversell your capabilities) and show a little of your personality in the opening and closing paragraphs.
  3. Are you going to make me look good?  Show #1 and #2 and you’re all set!

Now, what benefits does this “T” style cover letter provide?

  1. Applicant Tracking Systems (ATSs): Many organizations buy and use these nasty little systems to eliminate you from consideration!  The systems scan your cover letters and resumes looking for key words and phrases (amongst other things); they eliminate the applications where there is not a great fit and allow the rest through.  Seriously, it does save the organization time and money in reviewing every single application.  How does the “T” style cover letter help?  Well, you’ve repeated what you think are the key words and phrases in the left column.  That should help get you past these pesky systems.
  2. No ATSs: If the organization does not have an ATS, then they may be using a junior person to physically screen the application packages.  Imagine all the mistakes that get made where the screener didn’t notice that you had a certain experience or skill?  The “T” cover letter will help eliminate mistakes by making the screeners job easier … they can see you’re a fit right away!
  3. Letter Tailoring: Remember the third and most likely thing that cover letter readers are looking for.  Have you addressed my needs?  If you focus on specifics, you cannot create a “T” cover letter that does not scream that you are addressing their needs.
  4. Time and Effort: The reader can tell that you had to put significant time and effort into creating your cover letter.  The truth is that the first few will take some significant time.  After that, you will have created bullets that can be easily customized to address a variety of requirements.

What if I don’t like the table format?

Some individuals don’t like the table format.  Go by your first instinct.  If you first looked at it and thought “wow”, then full steam ahead.  If you thought “yuck”, then don’t use it.  The whole idea is to attract like-minded people.  Plus, you need to be proud of any application that you put forward.

For those folks, I would suggest the modified “T” cover letter.  For this one, we simply remove the left column and stretch the right column across the page.

Here is a sample; again, feel free to contact me if you would like the sample to use as a template.

Provide the genuine “T” cover letter or the modified “T” cover letter and you will simplify the reader’s job.  You will show them that you warrant progressing to the next stage.  And, after all, isn’t that what the application package is all about?

That’s my take on cover letters!

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