A cover letter is your opportunity to make a compelling case for yourself as a candidate, totally aside from what’s in your resume.
That because for most jobs, picking the best candidate is rarely solely about skills and experience. Those obviously take center stage, but if that's all that mattered, there would be no point in interviews; employers would make a hire based off of resumes alone. But in the real world, other factors matter too—people skills, intellect, communication abilities, enthusiasm for the job, and simply what kind of person you are. A good cover letter effectively conveys those qualities.
Here’s what a good cover letter accomplishes:
What a good cover letter doesn’t do is simply summarize the resume that follows. Think about it: With such limited initial contact, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you squander a whole page of your application on repeating the contents of the other pages.
Instead, a great cover letter will provide a whole different type of information. For instance, if you’re applying for a secretarial job that requires top-notch organizational skills, and you’re so neurotically organized that you alphabetize your spices and color-code your bills every month, most hiring managers would love to know that about you. And that’s not something you’d ever put in your resume, but the cover letter is a perfect place for it.
Approaching your cover letter in this way practically guarantees that you’ll stand out from your competition since only a tiny fraction of candidates tailor their cover letters like this. After all, imagine screening resumes and having 200 basically qualified candidates, with little to differentiate them from one another. Wouldn’t you give an extra look at the one person who expressed a genuine enthusiasm for your company and didn’t just send you a generic form letter?
Of course, this approach does take longer, so job-seekers sometimes argue that they have no time for this kind of personalization when they’re applying for 50 different jobs. But narrow it down and focus on fewer jobs, take the time to write a truly compelling cover letter tailored to each specific job, and it’s likely you’ll find that 10 truly personalized, well-tailored applications get you better results than 50 generic applications.
Now, there are certainly some hiring managers out there who will tell you that they don’t care that much about cover letters. But there are so many who do, and so many stories of a cover letter getting a candidate an interview when one otherwise wouldn’t have been offered, that it’s well worth your effort. At a time when most job seekers are wondering how they can stand out in a crowded field, this is one of the most effective ways to strengthen your chances of getting noticed.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.