Career Doctor: Are Cover Letters Relevant?

By Dave Willmer

Question: During my job search, I’ve been writing a cover letter to go with each resume I send out. A couple of my friends think I’m wasting my time – according to them, no one even reads cover letters anymore. Is that true? Should I no longer send a cover letter when I apply for an open position?

Dave Willmer responds: It’s true that cover letters aren’t as universally important as they used to be, and that in many cases your cover letter may go unread. However, the cover letter is still a potential opportunity to get an edge on the competition.

In some situations, a cover letter is indispensable – for example, if you’re an entry-level professional, you’re trying to make a career switch, or your resume includes employment gaps or other potential concerns that need to be addressed. But even if none of those factors apply to you, it’s risky to assume your resume will speak for itself, especially in a highly competitive job market like today’s.

Perhaps the key question is not whether to write a cover letter but rather why would you risk not writing one? A well-crafted letter doesn’t take much time, and it might increase your chances of standing out in a hiring manager’s eyes. Regardless, it won’t hurt your chances of landing the position you seek.

What makes a strong IT cover letter? Here are some tips:

Keep it short and simple: Limit your cover letter to two or three brief paragraphs, or about a half-page. Expand on one or two key points from your resume and emphasize the aspects of your work history that relate most closely to the job opportunity. When applying online, paste your cover letter into the body of the e-mail message or the appropriate space on an online application, if one is available.

Address the hiring manager: Try not to start your note with "To whom it may concern "or "Dear sir or madam." Instead, call the company to ask the hiring manager"s name (as well as the correct spelling) and title if it is not apparent in the job posting. Addressing the letter to a specific individual is not always feasible, but doing so when possible demonstrates motivation and resourcefulness.

Target the opening: Customizing each letter to the specific job opening shows that you’ve researched the opportunity. Determine which professional accomplishments to focus on by rereading the job listing. For example, if you’re applying for a position that involves managing a small team, play up your interpersonal skills and previous experience overseeing groups of employees.

Be honest: Don’t stretch the truth about your accomplishments. Provide concrete examples of how your work contributed to your previous employers’ bottom line. Even seemingly minor misrepresentations – saying you managed the daily operations of a firm’s help desk when you actually co-managed it, for example - can come back to haunt you during the reference or background check process.

Provide evidence: Instead of simply saying you have strong skills in a certain area, describe your abilities in detail. For example, you might say this about your communication skills: "I recently led a training session on a new database application for the sales department and was praised for my ability to convey complex information to a non-technical audience." Likewise, avoid vague claims. Saying you have "world-class web development skills" is less effective than explaining how your app increased sales for your employer by 10 percent.

Look ahead: At the end of your letter, demonstrate your enthusiasm and interest in the position by identifying next steps, such as, "I’ll follow up with you next week to discuss meeting in person." And then make sure you do.

Check for errors: A typo or grammatical mistake can negate any cover letter’s benefit. Ask a detail-oriented friend or colleague to review the document before you send it out. Even if your cover letter doesn’t get read, the process of writing one helps you crystallize how you can benefit the employer in the specific role at hand. That’s great practice not only for interviews but also for your job search in general. If you find a cover letter for a particular opening especially hard to write, it might be a sign that the opportunity isn’t right for you.

Dave Willmer is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multiplatform systems integration to network security and technical support. The company has more than 100 locations worldwide and offers online job search services at rht.com. For additional career advice, follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/roberthalftech.

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