Question: “What is a cover letter — and why is it important?”
by Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.
What is a cover letter? It’s a letter of introduction that highlights your key accomplishments and fit for a job opening. A cover letter adds focus to your resume. Few employers seriously consider a resume that is not accompanied by a cover letter; thus, a cover letter needs to be part of your job-search strategy. Each cover letter must be tailored to each job, each employer.
Why is a cover letter so important? A resume is of limited value to an employer if he or she doesn’t know what kind of work you want to do. A cover letter tells the employer the type of position you’re seeking — and exactly how you are qualified for that position.
Your cover letter can explain things that your resume can’t. If you have large gaps in your employment history, reentering the job market or changing the focus of your career, or relocating and conducting a long-distance job-search, a cover letter can explain these circumstances in a positive way.
What are some of the most important tips when writing a cover letter?
- Whenever possible, address your cover letter to a named individual
- Grab the reader’s attention by writing an appealing first paragraph
- Highlight your three to four key accomplishments/skills/experiences
- Focus on the fit between your qualifications and the job requirements
- Whenever possible, relate yourself to the company
- Never include any negative information
- End your letter by requesting an interview
- Mention that you will follow-up your letter — and then do so
- Cover letters should be kept to under one page; electronic versions even shorter
- Avoid all types of mistakes, including typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors
Resources than can help you with your cover letter:
This article is part of a series from The Career Doctor’s Cures & Remedies to Quintessentially Perplexing Career and Job-Hunting Ailments. Read more.
See a list of all the most common college, career, and job questions — and Dr. Hansen’s solutions.
Who is the Career Doctor? Learn more, read his current career column, or browse the column archives when you visit the Career Doctor’s homepage.
Dr. Randall S. Hansen is a nationally recognized career and job-search expert. He is founder of Quintessential Careers, one of the oldest and most comprehensive career development sites on the Web, as well CEO of EmpoweringSites.com. He is also founder of MyCollegeSuccessStory.com and EnhanceMyVocabulary.com. He is publisher of Quintessential Careers Press, including the Quintessential Careers electronic newsletter, QuintZine. Dr. Hansen is also a published author, with several books, chapters in books, and hundreds of articles. He’s often quoted in the media and conducts empowering workshops around the country. Finally, Dr. Hansen is also an educator, having taught at the college level for more than 15 years. Visit his personal Website or reach him by email at randall(at)quintcareers.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
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Learn When (and When Not) to Include a Cover Letter With Your Resume
Do you really need a cover letter if a company doesn't ask for one? Composing a lot of cover letters during a job search can be challenging and time-consuming. Because of this, it's not surprising that applicants often hesitate to include a cover letter when it is not explicitly required by an employer.
If you're wondering if you should include a cover letter, the short answer is yes. You should almost always submit a cover letter, even if it is not required, but there are a few exceptions.
First, let's look at why cover letters have value.
Why it Makes Sense to Write a Cover Letter
If you're serious about landing the job, a well-written cover letter gives you a chance to sell yourself to the employer in a narrative format, and explain why you are an ideal candidate. A cover letter also affords you the opportunity to highlight your strongest qualifications.
An effective, customized cover letter will also make it clear that you are highly interested in the job. That's because it shows the hiring manager that you want the job enough to take the time to go the extra distance.
A cover letter also gives you an opportunity to include details that your resume does not contain. For example, if you are applying from a distance, your cover letter will enable you to present a rationale for relocation and to mention that you will be in the area shortly for a possible interview. Gaps in employment with reasonable explanations can also be addressed in your letter.
A cover letter is also an ideal place to provide specific examples that prove you have the skills and experience listed on your resume.
Additionally, employers often expect to receive cover letters even though they did not stipulate the need for a cover letter in their job advertisements. Candidates who don't take the time to compose a letter are often viewed as less motivated for the job.
In many cases, employers won't even look at a job application that doesn't contain a cover letter or letter of interest.
When Not to Include a Cover Letter
No letter is much better than a poorly written one. A well-composed cover letter serves as a sample of your writing ability but, unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If you don't have time to write a well-crafted cover letter that pitches your skills and positions you for the job, forego the effort.
Likewise, if the job application instructs that you should not include a cover letter, then it's definitely best to follow directions so as not to annoy your potential employer.
Also, if the company asks you to submit your application through an online platform, and there is no place for you to submit a cover letter, don't worry about it.
Tips for Writing a Cover Letter When It’s Not Required
- Write a targeted cover letter. Be sure to write a targeted letter. This is a cover letter written with the job listing in mind. Focus on the skills and abilities that you possess that make you a strong fit for the specific job.
- Keep it short. Make sure that your letters are concise (no more than one page topping out at five paragraphs) and that every statement you make conveys something significant about your qualifications for the candidacy.
- Go beyond the resume. Avoid simply repeating your resume. Provide examples not listed in your resume, and expand upon things mentioned only briefly in your resume. Your cover letter should have a distinct purpose in regards to your application.
- Edit, edit, edit. Errors in your cover letter can hurt your chances of getting an interview. Errors make you look sloppy, or worse, not educated. Be sure to thoroughly read your letter before submitting it. Consider asking a friend or colleague to read it as well to check for typos, grammatical errors, and confusing language.
Read More: How Long Should Your Cover Letter Be? | Cover Letter Examples and Tips | Targeted Cover Letters