The Laid-Off Life: My Baby She Wrote Me a Cover Letter

Nancy Anderson
Posted by

"The speaker who hops to the platform, skips the introduction, and jumps to the conclusion is roundly applauded."Unknown
Dear Sir or Madam: My name is Michael, and I really really wanna work for you. I’m good, and you’re good, so let’s be good together. So, when do I start? Résumé attached. Love, Michael.

I have been hearing a lot of chatter lately in the Laid-Off Life world about cover letters, or 'CL's. (Seriously people, do we have to have abbreviations and acronyms for everything?) It seems a lot of people in the world of human resources are starting to disseminate the idea that cover letters are now passé, like 4:3 televisions and skinny ties. 4PhillyJobs’ posted an article on Twitter recently by Perry Newman, who is a "nationally recognized executive resume writer, career coach, and certified recruiter", who stated in his article 'Cover Letters: To Send or Not to Send, This is the Question':

[Recruiters] do not have the time or inclination to read or receive a cover letter. To them it is another piece of useless clutter on their desk or inbox. The odds of reading your cover letter and sending it up the line are slim. [My] opinion is if a cover letter is not specifically required, it can do more harm than good.

Wow. That really goes against everything we were taught in job-finding school (which apparently I went to in the 1800s). Doesn’t it seem rude to just shove a résumé in a hiring manager’s face without introduction? Now, in Mr. Newman’s defense (and I love his popcorn), he was giving both sides of a pro-and-con argument, but he is not the first one I’ve seen sounding the death knell of the cover letter. I can understand the uselessness of a cover letter in the world in which we now live where recruiters, hiring managers, and HR professionals rarely read job submissions and applications thanks to the proliferation of HR keyword software. How many cover letters are read by a human now? 25% 10%? Less? Ok, so here’s the dilemma: cover letters are irrelevant, but you need to keyword-blanket your cover letter? Seems as if you need a cover letter that sounds something like: Dear Sir or Madam: Hard-working, HTML knowledge, team player, five-years’ experience, leadership qualities. Thank you, Michael. If that gets you the job, I just need to give up and go stock shelves at Costco.

The old rules used to say a good cover letter needs to highlight your best qualities, summarize your experience, and explain why Buy’N’Large Company can’t live without you. They should be specific to the company and position you’re applying to. And they should be limited to one page. I guess, even as a writer looking for a job as a writer, my cover letter may have been too long? Too specific? Too good? I’ll tell you, my cover letters are killer. But that’s not what an HR person, or a keyword extractor program is looking for.

There are of course, many many pitfalls to cover letter writing. Just like your résumé, you’re dead-in-the-water if your CL is a boilerplate form letter. Jessica Holbrook, a fellow Nexxt/ contributor and résumé expert explained it well, saying:

I was amazed—or should I say appalled—at the blanket responses we received from job seekers. Potential candidates sent us cover letters describing experience they possessed that was completely irrelevant to our opening; it was the same as someone having a degree in veterinary medicine but seeking employment as an IT director. Did these job seekers really think that going on and on for paragraphs about irrelevant experience was going to make me want to read their resume—or even more so—interview them?

Exactly. And that’s the problem: a cover letter can do much more damage than help you if you’re not doing it right. "[Job seekers] are sending out countless job applications as quickly as humanly possible," she continues, "probably exasperated by the sheer volume of applications they feel pressured to submit." Which is problem number two. I don’t want to think about the number of jobs I’ve applied to since I’ve been looking. The number would scare you and send you running under the covers. But the game remains the same: no matter how many résumés you’re sending out, and no matter how many résumés a company is receiving, it comes down to the company wanting to feel as if you are interested in them more than anyone else. You found their company, their job opening, and it’s the one place in the world you wish to work. Therefore, your cover letter has to be tailored to that company, and as importantly, that person. The job listing you found doesn’t have a recruiter’s name attached? You better find it. Can’t find it? You’re not trying hard enough.

Go to the company’s website and look for names in the 'about us' and 'contact' sections. Find the hiring manager, a relevant department head, and/or the human resources manager, and his-or-her email address. Not there? Go find the company on LinkedIn, and find the applicable person’s name. Go to Google, and search "Lindsay Fünke" and "" (or whatever the domain). I bet dirhams-to-donuts that something relevant shows up. Those tricky managers can run, but they cannot hide from a search engine expert like you.

Can’t find an email address? Find any email from the company online so you know the naming convention. And take your best shot. Found Good guess that your target will be Send your email to this person. Direct your cover letter to this person. Address your cover letter to this person. And if you feel comfortable doing do (and a lot of people aren't), just call the company and ask the receptionist for names and email addresses (if you can get a human on the phone, and even if you do, they may not give out that kind of information). And don’t forget, your résumé needs to be molded to your recipient too to underscore how you fit them.

What about those blind listings that don’t even tell you what company it’s listed for? If you find nothing after Google’ing the keywords (ha!) in the posting, you won’t have a choice but to generalize your cover letter. But fret none: the odds are that if they’re that hard to find, chances are that a) they know you can’t find it, and b) no human will be looking at it anyway.

So, back to the point about cover letter vs. no cover letter. I think most experts would agree that a cover letter is still germane, but it’s not a rehash of your résumé, a place to oversell yourself, nor an autobiography. So, as always, content is key. Make it short. Make it applicable to the job and company you’re sending to. Make sure you have a good mix of keywords lifted directly from the job posting. Don’t rehash your résumé. Explain anything you find it necessary to. Follow any directions (like if they want you to confirm the number of years’ experience you have or what your salary history is). And keep. It. Brief.

So think of your cover letter more like an introduction to your résumé, and to you, and less like a prose version of your résumé. Save that for your interview. And if you’re a writer like me, or any kind of creative type, or anyone applying for a job where communication skills are vital, or where image is important, or, well, anyone, that cover letter better look good (and, do I even need to say, free of spelling and grammar errors) because that’s your first impression you won’t be getting back. As Mr. Newman summarizes, "Just explain what job you are applying for, that the résumé will show why you are a good fit, and offer to include contact information and availability for an interview."

Which is all well-and-good if anyone bothers to read it.

Michael Hochman
? Laid-Off Life on Twitter ? Laid-Off Life on Facebook

Michael is a Copywriter, Creative Marketer, and Broadcasting Professional still in search of full-time employment after 14 months of full-time job hunting, thanks to an "involuntary career sabbatical". A Philly native and Syracuse graduate, Michael will gladly accept any job offer you may have for him. Any. Really. Please give me a job??

"Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar." - Drew Carey

Become a member to take advantage of more features, like commenting and voting.

Jobs to Watch