I get it, cover letters are no fun. It’s hard to know what to say, you have to brag on yourself a little, they can sound stilted and awkward instead of flowing naturally, and they generally take up time you’d rather spend on almost anything else.
It makes sense that people want an excuse to get out of writing one. I often get asked: But do I really need a cover letter?
The short answer is yes. An emphatic yes.
Let’s get the excuses out of the way. Some of the most popular:
- The application didn’t say I needed a cover letter.
- So-and-so didn’t write a cover letter when they applied for their job and they got the position.
- I’m not applying for a communications position, why should I write anything?
- No one is going to read it anyway.
- I just don’t have time for this.
There’s one simple and resounding reason you should send a cover letter with every single job application: It’s a major way to set yourself apart from the other applicants. (And that’s what you want, right?)
Set Yourself Apart
A cover letter is your chance to show a potential employer what you’ve got. Heck, even just writing one can show extra initiative over other applicants. If the application didn’t say to send a cover letter, almost everyone who applies will probably skip it. How does it make you look, then, when you’re the one who took the time to do it? Pretty dang good.
Even if other applicants are sending in cover letters, or it’s a requirement of your application, a well-written cover letter can still be your secret weapon. A cover letter that explains how your experience and interests match up with what the job is looking for will make you stand out from most other applicants. Remember when I said cover letters are hard? They’re hard for (almost) everyone. And because they’re hard, most people just churn one out. If yours shows any kind of thought and intention, believe me, you’re already ahead of the curve.
Show You Have Communication Skills
Just because you’re not applying to be a writer doesn’t mean communication isn’t important to your potential employer. Communication skills are part of almost any position in one way or another. If you can string sentences together to form a coherent thought, that’s a good sign you’ll also be able to do so speaking to teammates or when creating job-related documents and reports.
Prove You’re Not a Nightmare Employee
The cover letter shows your potential employer that you’re not any of the following: horribly self-absorbed, delusional, immature, inappropriate, or likely to light your hair on fire and run out of the office. (If you are any of those things, now is a good time to practice pretending that you aren’t.)
Writing about yourself like a rational human being to a potential employer may sound like common sense, but bad employee traits have a tendency to show through in cover letters. I’ll give you an example:
I was on a hiring team for a position that was fairly difficult to fill (tech people may understand when I say they wanted someone who could both do excellent web design and excel at front-end coding). An application came through from a person who had the skills we needed, which is more than we’d seen from most other candidates. But, I kid you not, this person referred to themselves as a superhero in in their cover letter.
At first, I thought they were just being cute or clever and it wasn’t working. As I finished reading the letter though, it was obvious that the applicant really thought of themselves as a superhero, down to having adopted a superhero name and tagline.
I didn’t recommend the applicant for an interview — the cover had told me a lot about what it would be like to speak with them. But we ended up giving them an interview appointment anyway. When they walked in, they were everything their cover letter intimated: a superhero gone wrong. They were too arrogant and strident, and they made it clear they thought they were better than our organization. Needless to say, we didn’t give them the job. I could see from the beginning we wouldn’t just from the way they wrote their cover letter.
Maybe an extreme example, although this kind of thing has happened more in my experience than you’d think. But the point is: All skills and background being equal, if your even-keeled, thoughtful cover letter gets submitted alongside a poorly conceptualized one, your chance at the interview shoots way up.
Your Chance to Talk
Question: In the job application process, when do you get a chance to say what you are looking for? What you’re interested in and why you want to work with the company and all that stuff (I hope) you want to say? The resume is all about the potential employer and what they want. You barely get to say a thing about what you’re wanting in your next position.
Answer: The cover letter. That’s where you show your passion for your work and your interest in this particular employer. Not only do you get to say your piece, but you show your potential employer your commitment to your work, your interest in their company and why all of it would be a great fit.
Even if you know you need a cover letter, it’s hard to know where to begin. The great thing is, it doesn’t have to be perfect, especially at first. You can fine tune it as you go. Just keep three things in mind as you write:
1. Focus on how your skills and experience match the position.
Answer what the company is looking for with information about your background. Avoid writing a storied account of your employment history that has little to do with the position.
2. Show your enthusiasm.
Talk about the things that make you a great employee in your field: how you approach your work, what matters to you, what stand by or can’t stand in a work process. Bonus points if you can align these things about yourself with things the company does/has done or is looking for.
3. Highlight your strengths.
It is so hard to write about yourself. But stay away from talking about your weaknesses. It will only distract your potential employer from your strengths. As a general rule, don’t spend time talking about: layoffs, employment gaps, career changes, disputes with past companies, etc. If they ask in an interview, you can answer (tactfully!). If they don’t, let it lie.
Now, no more excuses! Go write your cover letter.
About Resumes Are Hard
I’m Bailey at Resumes are Hard. I'm a long-time content strategist and reviewer of job applications. I help people write resumes and cover letters that highlight their strengths and downplay their weaker areas.