Lessons from the Trenches: Cover Letters

04/10/2014 | By Lucinda Foss

GrumpyCatCoverLetterI’ve been on the fence for a while now about cover letters. Do they really add value or are they just a check item that gives a candidate a small bump?  Are they the equivalent of the college essay… you only read it if you are on the fence?

Well, in the last couple weeks I have received over 250 applications for an open job at Jobvite and have spent a significant amount of time reading (and in some cases, not reading) cover letters.  A few were good; several were OK; a lot were really bad.

Below are some lessons I learned about myself from this experience.

  • I will not reject a good candidate for failing to include a cover letter with their application.  By a “good candidate”, I mean, you better have experience doing the job specified in the job description with a job title matching the job title of the job you are applying to.  In my case, only 23% of applicants were “good candidates” and of these about half included a cover letter.
  • Related to item 1, if you are not a “good candidate” based on the above definition (remaining 77%), you had better provide a cover letter explaining why I should consider you.  I’m not going to search your resume and try to connect the dots to determine if Experience A is similar to Requirement 1.  Your cover letter is your opportunity to do this for me.  That means that for the 41% of applicants that were not “good candidates” and failed to include a cover letter… better luck next time.
  • I will reject a potentially good candidate for addressing the cover letter to the wrong company (or possibly adding a capital V in the middle of Jobvite) or referring to the wrong job title. In my case, this accounted for nearly 5% of all applicants! I’m looking for someone with at least some attention to detail and this turned out to be a quick test to see if you have it.
  • I will cringe if the cover letter is addressed “Dear Sir or Madam” and will weigh this negatively against you.  Perhaps that is still acceptable if you are applying for a corporate finance job in New York, but not to a Silicon Valley Startup.  After all, when was the last time you ever heard someone use the word “Madam” in a sentence outside of a tuxedo-clad waiter at a white table cloth restaurant?
  • I do not have the time or patience to read an essay.  In this Twitterverse in which we live, I have an attention span of 140 characters. If you don’t say something interesting at the start, I probably won’t ever read it.
  • I will not read a cover letter that is a regurgitation of your resume.  I have your resume and bullets points are far easier to scan than full length sentences repeating the same info.
  • If you don’t live in the same metropolitan area, state, or country as the job, please include in your cover letter your interest in relocating.  I want to know that you know where this job is located.
  • I don’t just want to know why you would be a perfect fit for the job.  I want to know why you want THIS job.

I’d love to hear from other recruiters and hiring managers about your thoughts on cover letters or any advice you would give to job seekers as they craft their next cover letter!

One Response to “Lessons from the Trenches: Cover Letters”

  1. I hoped you would have said more about how the cover letter is a chance to see if the applicant has the required communication skills.

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