Are cover letters old hat? Elaine Varelas explains hiring managers’ expectations

Creating custom cover letters for each application can feel daunting during a job search. They can appear to take up more time than they’re ultimately worth, and may be skipped in favor of a faster submission process, allowing applicants to move on to the next listing. However, quantity is not always better than quality. Elaine Varelas explains the purpose and expectations hiring managers have regarding cover letters and interview etiquette.

Q: Are cover letters really necessary? I’ve heard from multiple people that recruiters don’t even read them. I spend so much time making sure they’re perfect. What are they really for? What can I do to make sure that my resume stands on its own if they’re just going to throw the cover letter away?

A: Cover letters are letters of transmittal. They do serve a purpose; people may not scour them the way they used to – readers don’t read every word, however, cover letters are useful and can differentiate you. If you spend so much time making sure they’re perfect, you may be overdoing it – unless you are looking for a PR, marketing, or other role that really depends on your writing skills. In these situations, you absolutely want to invest the time making sure that your letter is perfect.

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Cover letters are not necessarily thrown away and some applications ask for a resume and cover letter. When a cover letter is requested the hiring organization is looking for information that highlights why you would be most effective for the role. Additionally, the cover letter provides a platform to convey real reasons why someone should take the extra time to look at your resume. Perhaps you have a mutual connection in terms of experience or knowledge, perhaps you worked for a competitive organization and can offer a unique perspective. This tool can provide the reader with a bit more depth to complement what your resume says in just a few bullets. Scouring the resume for the same information is also tedious, and if you can influence the reader to look more thoroughly at what you bring to the job, you are a step ahead. 

The counterpart to the cover letter, after you secured the interview, is the thank you letter. Whether these are electronic letters or hard copy letters is a style preference. Thank you notes, written notes, handwritten notes, and thank you letters sent via real mail as opposed to email are often extremely welcome, particularly for more senior positions.

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And, while they may be thrown away after reading, they are acknowledged and they’re discussed by the people who receive them. Interviewers expect them. Whether or not you send one, you can absolutely guarantee that the people who spent time interviewing you will discuss whether or not you sent them one. Take time to communicate effectively at every opportunity. You want to be professional, stand out, and demonstrate why you are the best candidate for the job.

Whatever format you choose, make sure that these communications are quick, they’re to the point, they’re easy to read, and they represent the message that you’re trying to convey sincerely. Ensure every person’s name is spelled correctly, and that you don’t send the exact same letter to each person with whom you’ve met.

Cover letters and thank you notes will continue to have a place in the job seeker’s activity. Develop a great template and then make small changes to customize the content for the specific opportunity and individual receiving the letter.