Are Cover Letters Passé? Some 91% of Execs Still Think They’re Valuable

Photo by istockphoto.com
Photo by istockphoto.com

If you’re like me, you probably hear a lot about how savvy job candidates in today’s world need to focus on their digital footprint — things like their LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, and Twitter presence, to name just a few.

That’s all well and good, but I still believe that old school techniques like résumés and cover letters are not only useful but still matter alongside their more modern, digital counterparts. And, many others believe that the classic job hunting tools still matter, too.

For example, a new OfficeTeam survey found that more than nine in 10 (91 percent) of executives they polled said cover letters are valuable when evaluating job candidates. In addition, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) of those same executives indicated that it’s common to receive cover letters even when applicants submit résumés electronically.

Don’t underestimate a cover letter’s importance

Surprised by these numbers? You shouldn’t be, because according to Office Team, the results mirror those from a similar survey conducted in 2008.

“Although the job application process has increasingly moved online, the importance of a cover letter shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam, in a press release about the survey. “It often is the first opportunity to make a positive impression on hiring managers. It’s also a chance to provide context for your résumé, expand on key accomplishments and explain reasons for employment gaps or career changes.”

The survey was developed by OfficeTeam, a staffing service specializing in the placement of skilled administrative professionals, and conducted by an independent research firm based on telephone interviews with more than 1,000 senior managers at companies with 20 or more employees.

Cover letters are important because they give an opportunity for the applicant to tell you something about themselves in their own words. Great ones — like this classic from the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson— grab the recruiter or hiring manager and make them want to find out more about the person behind the letter. In fact, I’ve seen candidates with a sub-par résumé zoom to the top of the pack and get an interview based entirely on the quality of their cover letter.

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But of course, that sword cuts both ways. While a great cover letter can get you in the door, a bad one can get you ridiculed from coast-to-coast (and beyond) as this recent one from a NYU student trying to land a summer position at J.P. Morgan did. Forbes labeled it “the worst cover letter in the world,” and while that may be a bit of hyperbole, would you want to be that student and put in the position of trying to defend it?

Five tips for good cover letters

As much as all of us have embraced the digital world, there is still something to be said for the tried-and-true methods that have been around, and worked successfully, for a long time. We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them in favor of the digital world, because as I have pointed out before, things like cover letters and résumés haven’t lasted this long by accident.

The Office Team survey also lists five tips for cover letters that are worth keeping in mind too:

  1. Follow directions. Before sending your materials, read the job posting carefully. Employers frequently list specific instructions to follow when applying, such as including the job requisition number in the subject line of the email or submitting your cover letter and resume in a certain file format.
  2. Start smart. Address the letter to the hiring manager by name instead of using “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” If you don’t know the contact’s name, call the company and ask.
  3. Create a hook. A strong introduction offers a compelling reason to read on. Indicate which position you’re applying for and if someone referred you, then state how you can help the company meet its business objectives.
  4. Keep it short and to the point. Limit your cover letter to two or three brief paragraphs. Avoid sharing personal details that don’t relate to the position.
  5. Get it right. Have a friend or family member proofread your materials for typos. Before submitting, confirm the correct documents are included.”

Yes, the classic cover letter, like the classic résumé, still has a place in everyone’s recruiting world. That’s not to say that a job seeker’s digital presence isn’t important, but rather, that it pays for everyone to recognize that they need both new AND old style techniques in their tool box today.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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1 Comment on “Are Cover Letters Passé? Some 91% of Execs Still Think They’re Valuable

  1. Great tips on cover letters! I am generally not a big fan of cover letters that are long or contain a lot of unnecessary information. When composing, make sure your cover letter is easy to read quickly and
    stick to the point (the job). Avoid straying off target or including a lot of
    unrelated flattery about the company or the hiring manager. I do think it is
    clever to say something bold and thought provoking, but in general, I prefer
    simplicity and directness. I’ve especially liked cover letters that include
    grids or bulleted information. For more tips on resume writing and cover
    letters check out my recent blog, “Distinguish Yourself – Resume Writing Tips
    for Job Seekers” http://springboard.resourcefulhr.com/?p=1819.

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