How Important Are Cover Letters?
August 16, 2006 1:18 PM   Subscribe

Do cover letters matter?

Let's assume you're applying for a job and can put together a decent cover letter--there are resources galore on how to write one that's clear and well-formatted and so on.

But how important ARE cover letters? I ask b/c my bf used to have a job in HR and told me that at his company (a large healthcare supply business), they'd simply toss the cover letters and just go for the resumes.

Just wondering from those of you in HR or those of you who've gotten or not gotten a job based on your cover letter--should applicants be sweating it?

(I'm especially curious re: jobs in creative fields like journalism or advertising--where you also have a resume and clips to support your application)

posted by clairezulkey to Work & Money (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I think it depends a lot on the type of job being applied for.

I've been told that my cover letters have gotten me jobs/interviews. But those jobs have been for small non-profits/ small law-firms, where writing skills are important, and where they receive hundreds of applicants, not thousands.
posted by Amizu at 1:25 PM on August 16, 2006

If your resume and cover letter are going straight to HR, you've already got one step wrong. But when they're going to the person doing the hiring, or to the person who's going to be your boss if you're hired, then they're a necessity.

A cover letter is a letter to someone, after all, not just a decoration on top of the resume.
posted by mendel at 1:26 PM on August 16, 2006

In my experience as a hiring manager, cover letters only matter if they're bad (introduce error), or if there's additional information that's relevant (used to point out an internal reference, etc.). Including them isn't a bad idea, but keep them short and assume that HR may not even bother to include them with the packet they hand to the hiring manager. They frequently don't.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:28 PM on August 16, 2006

I've heard both ways on this. Not even looked at vs. very important.

I'm sure it depends on the field, but as a general rule, I would think people who don't look at them won't care that you sent one, but those who do care might not even look at your resume if you don't send one. So not sending one can only hurt you.

Might as well put in 15 minutes more of work (more if you care) to make sure all bases are covered. And yeah, make sure there are no errors.
posted by unsigned at 1:31 PM on August 16, 2006

I know that at my company, a nicely written cover letter outlining your interest in the position and the specific reasons you feel you're qualified is a huge plus. Yes, the info has to be in your resume, but if your cover letter clearly indicates that you read our job description and know at least something unique about our company, it's a huge step in the right direction towards getting an interview.

How long does it take to write a simple cover letter? 5-10 minutes? I would never skip writing a cover letter for a job I really wanted. Worst case scenario, it goes unread. Better to err on the side of politeness and doing things properly, and score all the brownie points you can get.
posted by tastybrains at 1:33 PM on August 16, 2006

I use the cover letter to make the case why I am perfect for this job at this company. In the letter, I literally list the requirements from the ad or job description, and describe my qualifications for each one.

The resume, on the other hand, is targeted at the type of job I want. (For example, if I'm applying both for copywriter and technical writer jobs, I would have two different resumes.)

This keeps me from having to rewrite my resume for every application. It also gives me a place to talk about people I know who work there, why I think the firm is awesome, etc.

Speaking as a former hiring manager, I love anything that saves me from having to pick through the person's resume trying to find whether they have my specific requirements.

So: yes, write a cover letter. It can't hurt, and it definitely might help.
posted by ottereroticist at 1:49 PM on August 16, 2006

There's a great craigslist post about this that transformed my cover letters. Basically, address exactly what they're looking for and how you do or do not apply to a particular requirement.

btw I'm actually not sure if this is the right link since my work won't let me see it for "adult content." The title looked right though.
posted by scazza at 1:51 PM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

The cover letter is a good opportunity to showcase or explain stuff that isn't in your resume, or to dig a little deeper into an item that is on there but its relevance may not be readily apparent. On preview, what ottereroticist said as well, my favorite cover letters are the ones that hit all of the qualities I listed in the position and that tells me how the person will be a good addition to my team. The cover letter is especially relevant in the fields you are going into (others include marketing, sales, writing, communication, development, etc.) My motto is if you can't sell yourself based on your cover letter or interview, you probably won't be able to effectively sell my product/communicate my message.

For my previous position, my boss told me it was the cover letter that made her interested in me. She received over 800 applications (but gave up looking through them all after 200). I thought that made me pretty special, but according to Amizu, 800 might be sort of lame.

Anyway, my cover letter was extremely targeted to the company and highlighted skills that were not apparent in the resume (but matched what the company was looking for). I also sent it to both HR and the hiring manager (see mendel's comment), since in most cases, only the hiring manager really knows what she is looking for.

If it's requested, include it. In a lot of cases there is a reason and people genuinely want to see it, particularly in the fields you are interested in. I'm hiring right now and I've requested both a cover letter and work samples. I'm really surprised at how few people are sending cover letters (don't even get me started on the work sample request). It makes me think that if they can't complete a simple request when they are trying to impress me, they aren't going to be so great on the job.
posted by ml98tu at 2:04 PM on August 16, 2006

I consider them more of a litmus test than anything else. Did they get my name right? Run spell check? Sound polished but not stilted, and not overdo the funny? Seem like they at least read the job listing?

For the record, I hire both creative & account staff at a small ad agency.
posted by miss tea at 2:06 PM on August 16, 2006

As with all questions of this type it will depend on who is reviewing your resume. For myself though, I'll give far more weight to a well written cover letter than I will to a resume. The resume says what you've done. The cover letter says how you think and express ideas (at least in my experience).
posted by willnot at 2:08 PM on August 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks very much. I should have clarified I'm not asking so much if you should write a cover letter, but just how much one needs to sweat over it (IE whether to try to write a brilliant one instead of a neat, professional, good one.)
posted by clairezulkey at 2:24 PM on August 16, 2006

It will vary by situation, of course, but I'd advise you to aim for neat, professional, and good. State your case clearly and concisely. Attempts to come off as brilliant are as likely to misfire as to impress, especially if brilliance doesn't come naturally (requires excessive sweat).
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:30 PM on August 16, 2006

In my company the cover letter mattered a lot. A good cover letter would have addressed what we're looking for and maybe added some extra info to the resume contents. If we got cover letters that were hastily tossed off with heinous spelling and/or grammar with absolutely nothing in the way of polite demeanor, the only thing that would get that person consideration is if the resume hit every single thing we were looking for 100%.

A weak cover letter says to me, "I don't really care enough about your job to give this the attention it deserves." Therefore, I don't care to give you a chance at getting the job.
posted by plinth at 2:50 PM on August 16, 2006

I think it's pretty difficult to write a brilliant cover letter, but you do need to take some care. It's more important to ensure you have the grammar, spelling and name of company right than to sweat over finding the perfect phrasing. A good cover letter may not necessarily get you looked upon more favourably, but a bad cover letter will definitely be looked upon disfavourably, if you know what I mean.

Having said that, we've just hired someone whose cover letter did make a very positive impression. She started it by saying that she knew we would be flooded with applications and it was up to her to distinguish herself from them, and then she used the letter to address precisely the couple of questions we would have purely by looking at her resume. But I work in a very small office, so your mileage will vary :)
posted by andraste at 3:31 PM on August 16, 2006

So: yes, write a cover letter. It can't hurt, and it definitely might help.

This is outrageously wrong advice. I often overhear the responses of the hiring staff regarding the resumes that come in to the office, or rather, I hear the ridiculing of the cover letter's content. A poorly-written cover letter can most certainly hurt your chances of landing a job.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:14 PM on August 16, 2006

I consider cover letters very important. It shows that you know proper grammar and can proofread, for one.

Even for entry-level, it's always nice to see an applicant who did five minutes of research on my company so that they could write something that didn't sound like it came out of a job-seekers manual.
posted by desuetude at 5:39 PM on August 16, 2006

In our hiring system, cover letters are stripped off and only resumes (in a standard format) are passed on to the hiring managers. We never see cover letters. Apparently this is the most equitable system, as determined by our big brains in HR.
posted by bonehead at 7:08 PM on August 16, 2006

A poorly-written cover letter can most certainly hurt your chances of landing a job.

As well it should.
posted by cheaily at 9:42 PM on August 16, 2006

When I hire, here is my order of preference:
* A good cover letter.
* A very perfunctory, but clean, cover letter.
* No cover letter.
* A bad cover letter.

A great resume with a minimal cover letter would probably beat a bad resume with a great cover letter (depends how bad and how great).

A bad (incoherent writing or many grammar/spelling errors) cover letter and I won't even look at your resume.
posted by beatrice at 12:41 PM on August 17, 2006

So: yes, write a cover letter. It can't hurt, and it definitely might help.

This is outrageously wrong advice.

So: yes, write a good cover letter. It can't hurt, and it definitely might help.

Hope that helps. I wouldn't want to give anyone outrageously wrong advice.
posted by ottereroticist at 11:07 AM on August 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

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