Success experts Patrick O’Brien and Susan Davis-Ali agree that cover letters are still a difference maker — if you can circumvent a company’s recruiting technology.
Patrick O’Brien’s take: Many companies today use “applicant tracking systems” (ATS) to make their recruiting efforts more efficient. When a firm utilizes an ATS, they require you to apply online. When you complete their online job application, you are actually just filling in the fields of their recruitment database so that you can be efficiently processed in their system.
An applicant tracking system allows an employer to sort recruits on anything from the type of degree they have earned or their college GPA, to the number of years’ experience they have, or even how often they have changed jobs. It’s a powerful tool.
When you applying online via an ATS, a cover letter is not required. In fact, you couldn’t use one even if you had it.
However, the #1 way to get a job, even in this high tech world, is still networking.
How to network has evolved based on available tools and technology, but when you’re networking in an attempt to get an interview (highly recommended), a cover letter is still a powerful tool.
Written well, it will encourage a recruiter to spend meaningful time reviewing your resume.
Even if you are required by a company to apply via an ATS, you can still send your resume to key decision makers and garner additional attention for your candidacy.
Here are some important principles in writing a great cover letter:
1. Be Brief. Your resume will tell your story more comprehensively. The cover letter shouldn’t. If it looks like a long read, it will be quickly discarded.
2. Identify yourself. Immediately let the reader know who you are. Leverage any connection point you have with them. If you met the individual at a conference last weekend, remind them of that. If you are from the same hometown, college, or have a common hobby that you discussed, mention it at the beginning of the letter.
3. Exhibit your passion. Tell them why you’d LOVE to join their organization. Your resume won’t do this — so make sure they know how well the company and job match your interests. This will differentiate you from people who blanket the market with resumes.
4. Sell your qualifications. BRIEFLY highlight the elements of your resume that you believe they will find of interest. What have you achieved that you believe a recruiter for this organization will find relevant? Think in terms of two sentences on this, not two paragraphs.
Patrick’s Bottom Line: A well-written cover letter can still be a difference maker if you are creative enough to find a way around (or supplement) a company’s online recruiting process. Keep it brief. Make it compelling. A great cover letter won’t land you a job, but it will help get you an interview.
Susan Davis-Ali’s take: I’ve hired a lot of people in my career — and very few got hired without a great cover letter.
The simple reason is because it’s the first impression the hiring manager has of you. We all know that first impressions can be wrong when meeting people, but we also know how influential they are. The same is true for your cover letter.
I fully endorse the four elements that Pat already outlined, and I’ll add four more that are key to a great cover letter:
1. Be human. One of the biggest mistake that I see on cover letters is candidates sounding like they inserted their name into a generic cover letter template. Even if you do use a generic template as your guide, say something interesting about yourself within the first two sentences.
Hiring managers are looking to hire interesting, qualified people, not robots. If you sound like a robot who sent out 50 of the same cover letters to 50 different job postings, you stand little chance.
2. Identify your unique fit. Many candidates use the cover letter to stress why they really want the job, while other candidates stress how they are highly qualified for the job.
Hiring managers are looking for a candidate who has both passion and ability. Your goal in your cover letter is to let the reviewer know how this job is the perfect fit for what you love to do and what you’re good at doing.
3. Make it easy to read. Formatting is as important as content in a cover letter. If it looks like a dense novel, it won’t get read. Use bullet points and/or very short paragraphs to highlight your strengths.
4. Highlight your “softer” skills. Your cover letter gives you a chance to mention skills that might not be highlighted on your resume. Such skills might include an eagerness to learn new things, an ability to work independently, the willingness to work long hours as needed or the ability to work well under stress.
Be honest and realistic in what you list and give a brief example of how you’ve demonstrated this skill in the past.
Susan’s bottom line: A cover letter is the first impression in the hiring process, and its only human nature to favor a cover letter that is brief, easy to read, non-cookie cutter and compelling. A great cover letter sets the tone for your resume, so take the time to make it a great one.
Patrick O’Brien is a business executive, author of Making College Count and a professor at Miami University. He co-founded a company which has delivered success programs at more than 5000 high schools and colleges nationwide.
Susan Davis-Ali, PhD is the author of How to Become Successful Without Becoming a Man. She is the founder and President of Leadhership1®, and an Executive Education Fellow at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota.