When I started getting career training in junior high, and as it carried on into high school, I was taught the value of the immortal resume. Formats and essentials and even what kind of paper to use were drilled into my head. I was even taught, though less through practice and more through lecture, the deep value of the professional interview: how to look, what to say or not say, how to present oneself, when to follow up, and so on.
No one told me about the thing called a “cover letter.”
By virtue of working alongside my mother in my teenage years in her offices, I learned that cover letters were often useful pieces of paper attached at the beginning of faxes, to note who the fax was intended for and add a small memo as to the fax’s purpose. Simple things, like “Attn: John Doe; Re: Acct. #1894; This is the bill from the doctor that we received.”
When I first encountered cover letters in job searches as an independent adult, I had a two-part reaction. The first part was stupor; I’d no idea what they required. Not knowing what they required led me to a mild form of terror and renouncement: if a job required a cover letter with a resume, I wouldn’t apply because it was probably more professional of a job than I was ready for with my experience. That’s what I assumed, at least: cover letters must be for people wearing suits, not some kid in college trying to get a part time job. Thankfully, the resourcefulness of the Internet, and my own confidence that grew as I gained more experience in the working world, finally taught me what a cover letter is, or well, at least what it’s supposed to be.
The problem is, cover letters still puzzle me a little from the perspective of a job seeker. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard “Your resume should speak for itself.” Cover letters, however, are the little heralds of resumes, the “memo” that introduces the resume and the applicant. Modern cover letters generally advise the following:
- First, introduce yourself and state briefly what you are applying for and a brief qualifying statement. Well, alright, any applicant who doesn’t let the hiring department know what job their resume is to be applied to is in a sinking ship. Qualifying statements are usually placed at the top of a resume, however, and also restated during an interview.
- Second, offer a few specific examples of accomplishments and/or skills that are applicable to the job you’re applying to. Resume advice states the same: list specific accomplishments rather than duties. Design your resumes around each job you apply for. And let’s not forget, this is also something covered specifically in the interview process.
- Wrap up with thank yous and contact information. Request an interview. Again, contact information is on the resume and interview requests are implied when applying for a job.
To me, cover letters seem like a step of redundancy between application and interview; somewhat like a written pre-interview in which the applicant provides answers to unspoken questions. This, of course, benefits applicant and employer: applicants get a chance to provide some information not directly accessible on their resume and offer a personal introduction; employers get the answers to more important questions than “Where have you worked in the past 10 years?” Regardless of whether cover letters feel redundant, they remain useful and are often required.
Creating cover letters requires its own art. Cover letters are often suggestive of template style work, but offering a template cover letter is about as useful as sending your resume without a cover letter. They must be succinct, informative, specific, and most importantly, personal. These aren’t easy traits to get right in a short letter, especially the first few times.
While I think I’m finally getting the hang of cover letters – enough to call them “good” – I’m still grasping for what makes a truly great cover letter. What do you think makes cover letters stand out? Can great cover letters avoid redundancy?