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Cover Letters: Why They’re Useful and How to Read Between the Lines

While there has been healthy debate as to whether or not cover letters are expected, they are still arguably a key piece of applying for a job since they allow applicants to introduce themselves and their accomplishments. They also give applicants the opportunity to highlight specific “wins” that are pertinent to the position, but which may not be visible on their resume.

A 2016 CareerBuilder survey found that only about 29 percent of employers require a cover letter.  However, not having one could force hiring managers to rely solely on someone’s resume, which isn’t always the best indicator of the candidate’s personality, writing style, or goals in applying for the job.

Types of Cover Letters

First, it’s important to know the five different kinds of cover letters you may receive. The most common is the application letter, which accompanies a resume when a candidate applies for a specific position. A less common type is a referral letter: This is used when the candidate has been recommended for a role at the company. When a job searcher wants to find out about a possible job at a company, they write a letter of interest. Networking letters and value proposition letters are the two final types of cover letters job searchers may send.

In each of these kinds of letters, it’s important to keep an eye out for attention to detail and succinctness. The letters need to be personalized for the company and job posting, and should highlight the candidate’s accomplishments. However, since they are by far the most common, this article focuses on how to break down an application cover letter. Here are a few aspects of these cover letters that hiring and staffing managers should pay attention to when reviewing job candidates.

Check the Details

When it comes to writing a cover letter, details are important. In an article for The Balance, Alison Doyle recommends that applicants always address an exact person (when possible). Companies should place the contact’s name in the job listing to see which eagle-eyed applicants actually use it in their cover letter. This could show an attention to detail, which is important in many jobs.

To test a candidate’s ability to follow directions, some employers also include a key detail in the job description that will prove if an applicant read the entire posting before applying.  This might include requesting a specific subject line in the emailed application or answering a random question in the cover letter. For instance, one employer that was hiring for a writing position asked, “What’s your favorite book?” Anyone who didn’t answer that question, as well as use the requested subject line in their email, was automatically disqualified.

If details are important for the role, this may be a great way to easily weed out applicants, especially if you scan for these things first before reading the cover letter completely.

Reward Succinctness

Many people going through the hiring process get nervous and end up talking too much or over-explaining themselves and their experience. Reading cover letters is a good way to evaluate candidates and see if they have the ability to be succinct when it matters.

Many employers specifically request that cover letters only be a set number of pages, paragraphs, sentences, or words. Competent candidates should be able to describe what’s most important about their experience — and by extension, a project or what they’re working on.  Being too wordy or describing an experience that doesn’t apply to the job may mean they either get off track easily (which isn’t good in any role) or they don’t completely understand what is expected of them in the role.

This could also be a clear indicator of how good of a fit a candidate could be, especially as the years of experience required increases. For instance, an entry-level candidate may be wordier in their cover letter to compensate for their lack of experience compared to a candidate with ten years of experience who has a proven job history.

Personalize Experience for Every Job

Victoria Crispo writes that a cover letter should not be a “regurgitation of your resume.”

The best cover letters explain how the candidate’s experience is directly applicable to the position. Take this into account when reviewing cover letters, especially from those whose resumes showcase a breadth of experience.

For instance, many digital marketing consultants have experience in several different areas: search engine optimization, paid search campaigns, content marketing, and social media marketing. However, if the open position is in your social media marketing department, the cover letter should stick to what the candidate has accomplished in that field. Unless their experience in search engine optimization can be tied directly to what you need in a social media marketer (and they succinctly explain how it does), their years of experience and completed projects in that field won’t have much interest to you.

Focus on candidates who take the time to gear their cover letters to your specific job opening. This could include software proficiency or what they have accomplished for past employers in a similar role.

Highlight Accomplishments

One of the most impressive parts of any cover letter is hard data or experience that proves a candidate is right for the role. Look for a section that outlines accomplishments. This is going to save you time in the interview process, too.

According to The Muse, good cover letters focus on what the candidate is capable of and how their applicable projects and skills can be used in the position. You will know a lot more about a social media marketing candidate who specifically lists past social media clients, as well as their percentage of monthly site referral traffic, than someone who simply says that they know what they are doing.

Use a cover letter as the first step in the hiring process to screen submissions so you get better candidates, faster. By critiquing a cover letter for attention to detail, ability to follow directions, and personalization to fit your specific job posting, you can better evaluate candidates to decide who is best qualified to move onto the next step.
 

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