Creating Effective Cover Letters

Do cover letters matter? Do recruiters and human resources managers even look at the correspondence that accompanies your resume and job application? The answers vary widely even among career experts and HR pros, many of whom have strong opinions on the matter.

At one extreme: Susan Cucuzza, a business coach with Live Forward and formerly an HR executive at Textron, considers them a waste of time. “In my entire human-resources career of interviewing and hiring thousands of individuals, I may have read a few dozen cover letters at most, most of which provided no value. Most recruiters and human-resources professionals immediately put the cover letter to the side and jump into the resume itself. Why? The cover letter doesn’t tell me anything more than what I will find on the resume.”

In the other corner: Jane Angelich, the former vice president of human resources at Salomon Brothers investment bank, who says “the cover letter is more important than the resume. If the cover letter didn’t grab me, I never got to the resume.” She recalled an instance where a cover letter moved her enough to invite a candidate in for a job interview. “His resume, without the cover letter, looked like every other one that I received for the prestigious and high-paying training class we offered. He made me want to meet him because of that cover letter, and I hired him.”

When I was the head of human resources at a Fortune 1,000 company I fell into Susan’s camp — I never read cover letters. But as a career coach, I advise my clients to use them. Why? Because you don’t know whether the recruiter or HR manager on the other side of the job application is like me and Susan or Jane.

“The truth is that some recruiters read cover letters and others do not,” said Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, career-services expert. “But since you don’t know which recruiters are reading them, you must write a compelling cover letter which makes the case for why you should be hired.”

Those who advocate cover letters recommend that they be personalized to make the candidate stand out in a way that is relevant to the job being filled.

To whom it may concern…

First of all, the cover letter must be addressed to a specific person, clearly indicate the job you are seeking and focus on the specific needs of the company.

How do you determine the individual to whom you should send your cover letter if the company doesn’t list the name of the hiring manager? Heather R. Huhman, president of Come Recommended, an online community connecting the internship and entry-level job candidates with employers, suggested the following:

  • Search LinkedIn and Facebook to determine who might be responsible for hiring for this position.
  • Google the company’s name, the position title and “jobs,” “employment,” “human resources” or “careers” to see if they have listed a hiring contact for this type of opening in the past.
  • Call the organization and ask the receptionist.
  • Contact a current or former employee who can tell you the name of the individual in charge of hiring at your level.

It’s not about you

“Cover letters are only important to the extent that the candidate can make them interesting, or, better said, make themselves interesting,” said Donna Flagg, founder of HR consulting firm The Krysalis Group.

But it’s not all about you. It’s about what you can do for the company and why you would be a good fit. Review the company’s Web site and determine what skills and experience make you valuable to the organization.

Sharon Armstrong, author of “The Essential HR Handbook,” suggested job seekers cut right to the chase and use the cover letter to demonstrate their qualifications for every requirement of the job. She recommended they use two columns: The first column, “Your Requirements,” lists each requirement set forth in the job posting. The second column, “My Qualifications,” details the candidate’s qualifications for each requirement. The two-column format works, she said, because: “1) you never know who is screening interviews and you’ve done all their work for them; 2) if the company is scanning, you’ve used all their key words; and 3) you have already started to prepare yourself for the interview by reviewing your background and how it applies to the needs of that position and the company.”