Cover Letters Matter

Guy Kawasaki shares his experience posting an announcement on craigslist. He point out how important a good cover letter is:

Write a cover email that addresses the position. Two people simply attached their resume to their response. I pushed back on one and suggested that he write a cover email. He copied and pasted my job description to, I guess, let me know which job he was applying for. Needless to say, both candidates didn’t get serious consideration. I don’t know about other employers, but the thing I can’t stand the most is laziness. Although, to be fair, the ad was for a position at the worst website in the world.

I hired a lot of people when I used to lead web teams at ASHA and I reviewed more resumes than I care to remember. A good cover letter that showed the applicant actually read the position description and thought about how they could contribute stood out like a shining beacon of hope. My usual vetting process on applications was something like this:

  • Rapid sort of those who obviously didn’t fit the job. Anyone who included a tailored cover letter would make this cut. I could usually cut out a third to a half of applicants at this stage. Each one got about 5 seconds of my attention.
  • More careful review of cover letters and resumes to cull more applicants who clearly did not meet what we were looking for.
  • Send what was left to the team for review and comment and then pick four or five to come in for interviews.

As you can see, a good cover letter got you past summary review and into a more in depth look at your merits. A cover letter is well worth your investment of time and effort.

A final note on the hiring process for applicants:

  • The purpose of a cover letter is to get the employer to look at your resume.
  • The purpose of a resume is to convince the employer that they should interview you (the cover can help with this as well).
  • The purpose of the interview is to convince the employer that you are the best person for the job.

If you design each stage with those goals in mind you’ll do better than 99% of the job seekers out there.

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10 thoughts on “Cover Letters Matter

  1. I use almost the exact same approach when triaging resumes. A good cover letter is a huge determinant of who moves forward in the interview process for me; especially since I’m hiring writers and editors, typically, it’s a strong indicator of how well someone would do in the actual job.

    One criterion I always use that you didn’t specifically mention: proofreading. If your resume and cover letter have spelling and grammar mistakes, you’re not going to be considered as a candidate. It floors me to see the number of resumes I receive that clearly weren’t spellchecked!

  2. Dave,

    Great post and great points. In a prior life I was a technical recruiter for a number of large Fortune 500 companies. The volume of resumes we would receive for most positions was staggering and often times many of the applicants were strong contenders for the job. So the way we separated out those who received additional consideration from those who didn’t was their cover letters.

    It wasn’t about the fluff that some folks put into them it really is about the content and that was the first thing I was looking for. Did the applicant actually read the job description? Do they know who we were? Did they show a level of polish and professionalism that made me say: I’d really like to meet this person?, that is what I was looking for.

    Interestingly this became a much larger issue as the level of the positions rose. There is a school of thought that feels cover letters are superfluous and that you shouldn’t judge an applicant based on them…only the resume, but even in very high volume settings I found that cover letters and the emails that accompanied them were good indicators into the level of maturity, professionalism and thoughtfulness of the applicant. And as Lisa noted, proofreading counts (I wouldn’t even consider a resume if there was more than one typographic error). Harsh perhaps but when the people working for your company, organization or association are your most valuable and typically most visible assets, you wanted to be assured you were hiring the best.

  3. Great meeting you in Chicago! Didn’t realize you were at ASHA…we work with Cheryl Russell over there.

    We’re in marketing over here, so resumes have to really stand out. One thing that really set one applicant apart for me—her photograph. She attached a small, professional photo to here resume, which also included a well-written cover letter.

  4. I just wanted to point out that you are looking at a symptom, not a root cause. The root cause of what you speak of is that some sources indicate that 94% of people do not get ANY response to a job position reply.

    Until the world stops this rude and brand detroying behavior, I would think that your post will not change behavior as it is not the root cause of this problem.

  5. > 94% of people do not get ANY response to a job
    > position reply

    So what? I grant that is frustrating to the applicant (it was like that in the 90s when I was on the market) but not writing an effective cover letter simply because they get no acknowledgment is self-defeating at best!

    Also, applicants can call to follow-up to make sure their application was received and checking on if the position is still open, etc. You don’t have to sit by the phone waiting hopefully.

    If you are applying for something where you will spend the majority of your waking hours, isn’t that worth a bit of effort, even if it is unacknowledged unless you get an interview?

  6. I think you are thinking in terms of a small business.

    Call and follow up with a larger company? I’d challenge you to try it, the process is so legalistic and compliance driven these days that most people say I can’t talk about it. Since you appear to have little experience as a 21st century candidate in the post 9/11 era(after which all the experienced people who actually read resumes for competencies were fired), I’d highly suggest not making statements in areas you have little RECENT experience.

  7. You’re making some incorrect assumptions there about my experience, David.

    In any case, you don’t address my point that not providing a cover letter is self-damaging, regardless of the state of application response in today’s world.

  8. Pingback: Getting the Interview | High Context Consulting

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