Clients planning a job search often ask me if a cover letter would be worth doing. I tell them the answer is “yes,” “no,” or “maybe”!
Most job seekers know they need a resume of some kind. For one thing, employers expect it. (Despite what you might read about resumes being on their way out, their demise hasn’t materialized yet.)
Cover letters, however, seem to be more of a gray area. You can find “experts” who’ll weigh in on both sides of the issue.
Can Cover Letters be a Waste of Time?
Certainly–like any other aspect of a job search. If you do a halfhearted job on your cover letter, you might as well have spent the time watching TV. The benefit to your job search will be about the same in both cases!
Similarly, if you don’t do your homework and settle for sending a generic cover letter to potential employers, it’s not likely to be useful. A cover letter that fails to address the company’s most critical needs and indicate how you can help meet those needs means you’ve wasted your time and probably the employer’s as well.
Finally, if you think a cover letter takes care of everything and you don’t need to conduct an active job search, you’re fooling yourself. Cover letters are one of the tools you might use, but they don’t operate in a vacuum.
Is a Cover Letter Always a Waste of Time?
Not necessarily. If you do your research and create a cover letter that speaks to employers’ critical issues, your resume stands a better chance of getting attention than if you shoot off your resume without a letter. Keep in mind, though, that the success of your job search doesn’t depend solely–or even primarily–on whether or not you use cover letters.
It starts with knowing your target market and researching the situations facing the companies you’re interested in. You might not want to spend equal time on letters for all of them.
For instance, suppose you identify 10 job opportunities you want to submit your professional resume for, but you don’t want to spend a huge amount of time crafting a tailored letter for each one. Evaluate the available information and choose, say, the “top 3” opportunities to do targeted cover letters for. Give those letters your best effort.
Will I Get Rejected if I Don’t Use a Cover Letter?
It’s possible, especially if the employer has stated you should provide one! On the other hand, we know some employers don’t give a lot of weight to cover letters.
The trouble is, you don’t know which companies attach value to cover letters and which don’t. That’s why I believe it’s important to pick your battles and develop great cover letters for the job opportunities you really want to go after.
What if My Cover Letter isn’t Great?
If it’s awful, you’re probably better off not sending one. The impression a terrible letter creates could sabotage your chances as much as a weak resume might.
If it’s not great but reasonably decent, you might still want to send it–assuming it does well at covering the key employer needs (as mentioned earlier) and at least hinting at the value you can bring. Some employers appreciate that you took the trouble to pay attention to what they need.
Basically, a cover letter is–or should be–about your value to employers. Accomplish that, and you’ve increased your chances of ending up where you want to be–going from your old job (or unemployment) to your new job.