In my last post I talked about how to make your résumé more likely to catch the attention of a hiring manager. As a follow up, I’d like to discuss cover letters. Here’s my basic philosophy on them: don’t bother.
That’s because the cover letters I see usually fall into one of three categories:
The recap: The résumé in prose form. It’s redundant, harder to read than the résumé, and provides no additional insight.
The form letter: This says, essentially, “Dear Sir or Madam: I saw your ad in the paper and thought you might like me.” And it’s clearly a form letter where maybe they got my name and company right. If they’re lucky, I will still take the time to read their résumé after being insulted with a form letter.
The “I’m crazy”: This one’s rare, and it expands on the résumé of experience with some personal insights. Examples range from the merely batty (“I find batik as an art form has taught me to become both a better person and project manager.”) to the truly terrifying (“I cast a pentagram hex and the central line pointed towards your job listing. I know you will find this as comforting as I do.”)
RELATED: If You Want to Get Promoted, Say So.
There are really only a few times to use a cover letter:
When you know the name of the person hiring
When you know something about the job requirement
When you’ve been personally referred (which might include 1 and 2)
Under those conditions, you can help your cause by doing some of the résumé analysis for your potential new boss. To illustrate, here’s the best cover letter I ever received:
I am writing in response to the opening for xxxx, which I believe may report to you.
I can offer you seven years of experience managing communications for top-tier xxxx firms, excellent project-management skills, and a great eye for detail, all of which should make me an ideal candidate for this opening.
I have attached my résumé for your review and would welcome the chance to speak with you sometime.
Here’s what I like about this cover letter: It’s short. It sums up the résumé as it relates to the job. It asks for the job.
The writer of this letter took the time to think through what would be relevant to me. Instead of scattering lots of facts in hopes that one was relevant, the candidate offered up an opinion as to which experiences I should focus on.
And that means the writer isn’t just showing me skills related to the job, he’s showing me he’ll be the kind of employee who offers up solutions — instead of just laying problems on my desk.
What do you think? Have you ever secured a job thanks to a cover letter? What’s your view on the value — or lack thereof — of cover letters?
This content was adapted for inclusion in the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job.
Editor’s note: For a different take on whether you need a cover letter and advice on how to write a great one, read our Best Practice “How to Write a Cover Letter”
David Silverman has had ten careers so far, including entrepreneur, executive, and business writing professor. He is the author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars and of the April 2011 HBR article, Synthesis: Constructive Confessions.