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If you’ve looked for a job in the past few years, you’re likely aware that employers are finding new ways to use resumes as screening tools. Web sites (TheLadders included) devote thousands of pages to discussing the best practices of resume writing. Meanwhile, a cottage industry has grown up around certified professional resume writers (CPRWs) who study the art and technique of producing a resume with the best chance of navigating the software and human readers who review and judge your document.
While experts talk less about cover letters, they must navigate the same course as your resume. If the sources are quiet on cover letters, do they matter anymore?
Yes, said some CPRWs, ATS vendors and human-resource managers who handle the documents at both ends of the process.
Granted, your resume is center stage. Your cover letter may not be read at all, and it won’t salvage a poor resume, but it must be crafted just as carefully to satisfy software algorithms and HR screeners.
The introduction of the ATS as a first link in the chain has changed everything about the writing process, say CPRWs and HR managers. Like your resume, your cover letter has little room for error and demands exacting attention to structure and usage of keywords.
To determine the best rules for writing a cover letter, TheLadders asked the experts how cover letters are handled throughout the process.
Do you need a cover letter?
To start with, do you even need a cover letter?
Technology-wise, some ATSes treat cover letters as searchable text, the same as your resume; many don’t. Human process-wise, however, it’s the rare recruiter who even bothers to pass cover letters on to hiring managers.
But that doesn’t mean that you should stop writing them. Cover letters are a concise way to communicate your value to a company, and some recruiters and hiring managers do use them to winnow candidates. They demonstrate your attention to detail and anticipation of the company’s needs. Finally, small employers don’t necessarily employ ATSes, meaning your cover letter will more likely be read by human eyes.
How an ATS handles a cover letter
Nathan Shackles is a sales manager for ApplicantStack, an ATS made by Racarie Software and one of the software programs that render cover letters as searchable text. Shackles said that, like many ATSes, the application accepts cover letters as text pasted into its online form, not as an attachment. Therefore, the application stores cover letters with the resume as searchable text.
“I’d say this is fairly common, that cover letters are searchable,” Shackles said. “Because often, people will describe technologies in their cover letters and not put them in their resumes, for whatever reason. That’s the reason we search the cover letter as well.”
From that vantage point, Shackles recommends that job seekers look at the cover letter as a way to put in additional skills and credentials to add additional searchable keywords that a company may have programmed in the ATS to identify candidates for a specific job posting.
Your e-mail is the cover letter
Many ATSes, including ApplicantStack, also process resumes received via e-mail. In those cases, the ATS renders the content of your e-mail as the cover letter and assumes any attachment is your resume. Thus, when asked to e-mail a resume as an attachment, assume your e-mail content will be saved as a cover letter and write it accordingly.
On the flip side are ATSes that only process resumes, not cover letters. Tom Boyle is director of product strategy at one such ATS vendor, SilkRoad Technology.
Most ATS programs update or create a job seeker’s profile by uploading a resume; next, they cherry-pick information to parse and fill in the fields to create a profile within the ATS. While Boyle has seen ATS software parse “all sorts of resumes and formats,” he noted that SilkRoad only renders cover letters as attachments and doesn’t divide it up into fields.
That means the ATS doesn’t render your cover letter as searchable text. Thus, finessing the cover to make it machine-friendly by seeding it with keywords won’t influence your application’s ranking with this type of ATS.
Once a cover letter has become an attachment, it’s unlikely that it will be searched and processed like a resume, Boyle said, given that the number of ATS programs that have the ability to search an attachment on a candidate’s profile is “very small.”
How do humans process your cover letter?
What happens to your cover letter once it reaches human hands?
David Couper, a career coach, said that the recruiters at most Fortune 500 companies don’t even send him the cover letter, let alone scan it into an ATS.
His experience is backed up by research conducted by Phil Rosenberg, president of reCareered, an executive career-coaching service. Over the past two years, Rosenberg has surveyed hundreds of HR managers and recruiters and interviewed management at the Top 10 job boards. He found that:
However, don’t count those cover letters out. According to the survey:
Tailor the resume as well as the cover letter
Couper advises his clients that you just never know whether someone is going to read the cover letter and whether it will make or break your application. “I recommend that the job hunter matches the job posting and includes keywords,” he said. “I also suggest that you lead in with a hook, preferably a personal contact, to someone the recruiting manager knows or some specific information that relates to the company or industry. … The cover (letter) is one of those items that you never know about but in the end you hope that it gets to someone — not a machine — and they read it.”
But this attention to customized cover letters may be missing the mark as far as achieving a high ATS ranking. Rosenberg noted that most candidates “put the majority of their customization (if any) in their application in a cover letter, using a largely static resume.”
Job seekers do that in the hope that the words on their resume “magically match the keywords a company's HR department or recruiters are searching for in their prescreening process,” he said. But the odds of matching keywords between a job listing and an uncustomized resume “stink,” Rosenberg said, generating response rates that range between 0 percent and 5 percent in healthy hiring years and sank to less than 2 percent in the current job market. Hence, he advises clients to spend more time customizing their resumes than tinkering with their cover letters.
What’s the safest thing to do? Tailor both your resume and your cover letter to match specific job listings. Mandy Minor, a resume writer with J Allan Studios, handles the possibility of ATS scanning by giving her clients several choices of what to use in a cover letter:
“I build a template with phrases such as, ‘I am an accomplished [CHOOSE ONE: marketing manager or marketing director or project manager]’ so that they can pick the title that will line up best for each job opening,” she said. “I also use industry keywords in a brief, bulleted list of accomplishments in the cover letter, which gets the attention of not just the ATS but also the human reader.”