Updated: Dec 12, 2022
By Rhonda Collins,
I Start Wondering Columnist
You’re at a dinner party and are introduced to someone new in your profession. Would you give her a business card without introducing yourself or providing a “nice to meet you” and probably a handshake? Unlikely! And I’m willing to bet you would exchange at least a few words of polite repartee such as how you know the host or come to be invited to this particular party.
When we apply for a job and fail to submit a cover letter with the resume or application, it’s just like handing out our business cards without a conversation. We are providing work details and contact information without context that would set us apart from other candidates.
Some job search specialists believe that a cover letter is old school. Many job postings don’t require it, and, in fact, some online systems make it difficult to submit one. Nevertheless, employers, I know who are hiring for positions that require communication skills and a professional demeanor value the cover letter as an applicant assessment tool.
I’ve had clients tell me that once they started adding a cover letter to their application, they immediately started getting more interviews. This is because cover letters work well when applicants understand their purpose and follow my formula for relaying the most important information.
Purpose of the Cover Letter
While a formal business letter may seem old-fashioned and stodgy in this day of texts and social media posts, the cover letter still serves the important role of being the first impression that employers have of you. The cover letter is as important as wearing an appropriate outfit to a job interview.
The cover letter serves four primary purposes
To connect the job description to your resume. The posting for an open position tells us what the employer is looking for in a new employee and their preferred experience and skills. The cover letter is your opportunity to say, “I am what you are looking for!” The most important thing to remember is to use the same terminology and phrasing that the job posting uses. Automated resume readers may miss a skill or certification you have if you call it by something other than what is listed in the job description.
To connect you with the reader. If you have values that you know align with the employer or are a customer of a company, the cover letter is your opportunity to say so. Although formal, your writing style should still let a sense of your charming or professional self come through in your choice of words. For example, one person might say, “With this resume, I am submitting my application for position XYZ,” while another applicant might say, “I’m delighted to apply for the XYZ job.”
To share vital details not provided in the resume. Resumes are meant to cram a great deal of career information into a small amount of space, not allowing us to share every bit of our life experience. Yet, sometimes it’s important to provide relevant information that doesn’t have a place on the resume or job application. For example, in my career, I have applied for a number of positions that required or preferred someone with international experience and a strong awareness of other cultures. On these occasions, I have been able to share in the cover letter that I have lived abroad and traveled to more than 20 countries. (See sample cover letter.) That’s a compelling fact that doesn’t appear anywhere on my resume.
To demonstrate your excellent communication skills. Most professional jobs today require employees to occasionally research and write reports, give presentations, or persuade colleagues or clients of a certain point of view. The cover letter will demonstrate you have these skills by showing that you:
know how to write a formal business letter,
are resourceful enough to identify the employer’s mailing address and name of the hiring supervisor (yes, make the effort!),
can articulately express your thoughts, and
are able to write grammatically correct English with no misspellings.
It is imperative that you must ask an eagle-eyed friend to proofread your resume and cover letter. You don’t want to risk even one typo on a job application.
Rhonda’s Formula for Success
My cover letter template has five parts, which I share in the PDF as an example of a cover letter.
Present a pleasant introduction of yourself and name the position for which you are applying. “I’m pleased to apply for the graphic designer position (job posting #234567) at Wilson Widget Company, which was listed on Indeed.com.”
Explain why you are applying for the job and how you are a perfect fit for this position. “With a 20-year career in website and publication design, I have all the required and preferred skills and experiences listed in the job posting. I have been a loyal customer of Wilson products for 10 years and was one of the first purchasers of the Widget 3.5 last year. I believe this combination of experience and familiarity with Wilson’s products and culture makes me a perfect fit for this position.”
Provide evidence to prove – in three to four bullet points – that you are a great fit for the job. Here you can pull out a few of the tidbits from your resume with an opportunity to elaborate on the ones that are most important. Remember to use the exact vocabulary from the job description.
Share any important details that are not in your resume or that may not come across in a quick scan of the resume. For example, “I also am fluent in Spanish and Italian and have won awards for dual language promotional campaigns.” Or “I have excellent problem-solving skills.”
Give an upbeat closing, expressing an interest in an interview. “I can’t think of a firm that my skills and interests more closely align with than Wilson Widget Company. I would welcome an opportunity to share more details of my background and experience. I am available anytime on Thursdays and Fridays for an interview.”
Two final tips
Be sure to sign your cover letter the old-fashioned way. So many applicants save the Word document as a PDF with no signature or their name in italics or an image of their signature. Take time to print the document, sign it in blue ink, then scan it as a PDF before submitting it.
If you are submitting an application in an online system that only allows you to upload a resume, you still can include the cover letter. Take your signed cover letter and put the pages of your resume behind it. Scan all of it as one document. When the employer opens your digital “resume,” the first page they will see will be your cover letter.
I hope I’ve made the case for you to include a cover letter in your next job application. Now, go forth and introduce your best self every time you apply for a new position. And let me know if you get the job!