Cover letters are the bane of my existence, and I don’t think I’m the only one who’d say so. Any time I’ve previously applied for new positions, I’d pause, think twice, and frantically Google “cover letter tips” before applying when I saw a job description that required a cover letter. I’d ask myself why companies are still requesting a cover letter when they can get all the information they need by reading my resume and doing a quick LinkedIn or Google search. As an applicant, cover letters felt archaic, unnecessary, and mostly annoying.
But as I’ve progressed in my career, I’ve noticed that cover letters are still as relevant as ever. It’s led me to wonder if hiring managers are still asking for cover letters, what is it they really want to see? So, I did what any millennial would do. I turned to social media. I put up a quick pulse check on my LinkedIn to seek insight from hiring managers. Much to my surprise, every response I received was in favor of a cover letter. Color me shocked.
Overwhelmingly, hiring managers shared how much they love cover letters and how valuable they are in the hiring process. My favorite comment came from Sarah Keach Baucom, Co-Founder of Girl Tribe Co. and Girl Tribe Pop Up, who said, “If there is no cover letter, I have no idea why someone would want to work with us! Sometimes cover letters speak more volumes than resumes. Especially if the candidate is younger/entry level or switching careers, I need them to bridge the gap for us in the cover letter on where they are at and what they will bring to the table.”
In just a few sentences, I questioned my stance on cover letters. Maybe they’re not as antiquated as I once thought. To help me dig deeper, I turned to a few experts. They helped me answer the question of what hiring managers are really looking for in a cover letter, so the next time you’re applying for a new position, you can give the people what they want and land yourself an interview.
Let’s meet the experts:
Of course, I had to start by asking the experts their stance on cover letters to better understand how important or not they are.
Do Hiring Managers Actually Read Cover Letters?
Sarah Doody: Some do, and some don’t, and that’s why we can’t make the assumption that cover letters are dead. What if the one cover letter you wrote was the difference between you getting an interview or not? Would it be worth it? There’s an assumption that cover letters take a long time to write, but that’s not true. If you invest the time to create a baseline cover letter that you can tweak for each role, then you can create a cover letter for each role you apply to in no time.
Arika L. Pierce: I DO think they read them, but they are probably reading them very quickly (five to seven seconds)—especially if they have received a lot of interest in the position. I think everyone should always send a cover letter—even if the job description doesn’t ask for one. It can be something that sets you apart because it allows you to share things that are not in your resume on what you will bring to the table.
Amy Feind Reeves: Please always send a cover letter if you’re able. Use keywords from the job description that don’t otherwise appear in your resume, which will amplify your chances of getting past an ocular reader. A cover letter will also give you a chance to explain why you want this job and why you want it at this company. These are two of the most important points a screener and a hiring manager will look for, and expressing them could mean the difference between being passed over and being passed on for a phone screen. Lastly, a cover letter allows you to show that you can write a professional document which is a desirable skill for any role.
Now that we know cover letters are a must when applying to a role, I wanted to know what are the most important things candidates should focus on when crafting their cover letter.
What Are the Top Three Things Hiring Managers Look for in a Cover Letter?
Sarah Doody: Your cover letter needs to show recruiters and hiring managers why you’re an awesome candidate and intrigue them to learn more so they spend more than six seconds with your resume, see for themselves why you’re a great fit, and invite you to the interview process. The top three things hiring managers look for in a cover letter are:
- Customization: Don’t send the same cover letter for every job you apply to. It’s a major turn off to read a cover letter that is not customized and sounds like it could have been used to apply for any job. Think about all the times you’ve received generic sales emails or messages in your LinkedIn inbox, don’t make recruiters and hiring managers feel that way! Tailor your cover letter for each role and this will show that you took the time to do research and think of the person reading the cover letter.
- A solid pitch: In the first one to two sentences, make the case for why you’re a fit for the role. Tell them about previous experience and expertise that makes you an exceptional candidate. For example, imagine you’re applying to a product manager role at JP Morgan Chase and you have eight years of previous experience, previously working at Wells Fargo as a product manager and PayPal as a product designer. Your pitch sentence might be, “For the last six years I worked as a product manager on the commercial banking team at Wells Fargo and was previously lead designer on the enterprise payments team at Paypal.”
- Evidence and examples: Next, include one to two examples of projects you’ve worked on, outcomes, or the impact that you had. These should back up what you said you can do in your pitch sentence. If you wrote a solid resume, you should be able to draw upon those bullet points and re-use some of that content here.
Arika L. Pierce: They are looking for info that is not already in your resume: your unique value proposition (UVP) (i.e., what sets you apart from other candidates—and experience isn’t a good UVP), and what you will bring to the position—forward-looking statements, not a rehash of your past.
Amy Feind Reeves: Your cover letter needs to clearly and concisely highlight three things: (1) that you understand what the job is, (2) that you can do the job by linking the skill sets highlighted in your resume to the tasks that will be required, (3) and that you want the job. Don’t overlook that last one. It may seem like a “no-brainer,” but it is important.
We know we need a cover letter and what should be included. Now let’s explore how we actually write it and present our stories to get the best results during the hiring process.
How Long Should a Cover Letter Be and How Should It Be Structured?
Sarah Doody: A cover letter should be no more than one page! Your cover letter should have three sections, an introduction that includes your pitch sentence, evidence and examples, and a closing call to action. Your call to action should aim to spark interest and get them to follow up. For example, if you have examples of work you can show them, you could say ““If you’re interested in seeing examples of my work, I’m happy to send over a case study or talk you through it on a 15-min call.” By letting them know this exists, you might spark their curiosity and increase the chances they want to learn more.
Arika L. Pierce: These days no more than one page and I would keep it fairly short and succinct. Put the most interesting things first. The average person may read it in five to seven seconds so make sure your point jumps out—use formatting to your advantage.
Amy Feind Reeves: No more than one page with lots of white space at that. Less is always more. Your cover letter only has a few seconds to make an impact, so focus on the most impressive elements of your background. Set off the best, most sellable skills and credentials in bullet points, so they stand out. In the opening paragraph, state why you know you’ll add value to the role and why you want it. In the closing paragraph, say why you want to work for this company, specifically check out their website for a specific client or project or corporate responsibility policy that you really like, and mention it.
And finally, our experts share how we can stand out to help us land the interview.
What’s the Number One Thing You Should Do To Make Your Cover Letter Stand Out to Hiring Managers?
Sarah Doody: Recruiters and hiring managers are busy, so anything that a candidate does to help save them time will be appreciated. A great cover letter should quickly inform a recruiter or hiring manager about why you are the best candidate for the role. Think about your cover letter as a movie trailer and your resume as a feature film. Movie trailers are designed to instantly capture your attention and make you want to see the film. And as mentioned above, customize it and don’t send a generic version!
Arika L. Pierce: Use keywords from the job description and consider what else you can do. For example, connect with the hiring manager on LinkedIn and send them a video or audio direct message. Again, it’s about doing things to make you stand out that other people are not likely doing.
Amy Feind Reeves: Cover letters are not like essays or term papers. They do not need to be finely crafted biographical stories that explain your choices in life, the lessons you have learned, and how you arrived on your current path. Officially, these letters are known as #TLDR (too long; didn’t read). Unofficially, they just won’t get read. Cover letters are a second opportunity to make a first impression. Make them short and focus on why you want the job you are applying for and why you will be good at it.
So as it turns out, cover letters are more important than I once believed. They may be the difference between getting noticed and getting looked over. And if the only thing standing in your way of landing the job of your dreams is one piece of paper detailing how awesome you are, wouldn’t you take the time to write it?