Is it worth writing cover letters anymore? YES. We asked recruiters if they read cover letters and the answer isn’t only “yes”. It’s that a If you’re applying direct, hiring managers and human resources teams also find cover letters useful to determine whether it’s worth reading further,” says Ward.
The way your cover letter looks will also influence whether or not it will get read. “About three quarters of a page is just right and bullet points really help the recruiter or employer scan for information and keywords. The subheadings should paraphrase the requirements as stated in the job advertisement,” says Ward. “Under those headings include tangible points rather than general fluffiness or buzzwords such as “collaborator” or “team player”. If you are (a team player), give examples and quantify. We can use those examples from the agency perspective to sell you to an employer.”
- Erica Lindberg of Hudson: “My take on it is that it doesn’t hurt to send in a cover letter if it is done well, but it can detract from an application if executed poorly. A great cover letter shows you are specifically interested in that vacancy,” says Lindberg.
“Cater your elevator pitch to be relevant to the vacancy and if the job advertisement mentions certain requirements, make sure your cover letter specifically addresses them. Mirror the language used in the advertisement to highlight how your past experience matches the requirements and will add value to the business. This will help capture the reader’s attention - especially if the recruiter or employer is using an applicant tracking system that scans for keywords.”
A word of warning: Lindberg sees cover letters where the name of the person, the organisation, or both are wrong. If you’re selling yourself as someone with “attention to detail” then a slip up like this is a little like shooting yourself in the foot. While she will still read the letter, a clanger like this doesn’t help with first impressions.
Make sure you enlist the help of friends and family to double check your cover letter for typos and autocorrect errors. A spell checker will pick up the worst typos, but not necessarily transposed or autocorrected words. You need another human brain for that.
Finally, remember the cover letter can make the difference between landing that interview, or going back to the drawing board. We encourage you to take the time to pen the best cover letter you can. For some more advice on how to tailor your cover letter to the job, click here. Or read about the difference between a good and a bad cover letter.
Great cover letters help recruiters sell candidates to clients.
“Cover letter required.” This statement on a job listing produces groans among countless job seekers. We frequently get the question, “Does anyone even read them?” With that concern, it can feel like you’re putting it a whole lot of effort for no good reason.
To gain some clarity around this topic, we spoke with four nonprofit professionals who have influence in hiring decisions at their organizations. Their comments about cover letters shed a much-needed light on this document and its purpose. Read on to learn more.
Who reads cover letters?
Don’t get discouraged if you’ve heard “no one” reads the letters. It’s important to know who is making the comment- recruiter, HR administrator, or hiring manager– and understand their role and degree of involvement in the hiring process. If you ask a recruiter or any other person who does a first screening of candidates, they may say they don’t read them. Bettina Marshall, Office Manager at Alliance for the Great Lakes screens applicants and confirms: “I personally do not read them but there are some hiring managers here that do.”
In that first screen, they will be focusing on your resume. So why write a cover letter if it’s not being considered at that point? While it might be disappointing that your carefully crafted letter is not being read yet, remember it’s still a level playing field. The recruiter is not picking and choosing which letters to read, so it’s not like they are reading another candidate’s letter but not yours.
This is why it’s so important for all your application documents to be strong. If your resume lacks key evidence of your candidacy, your cover letter is not going to save you…but once you’ve made the first cut, you can wow the hiring manager even more if your cover letter speaks to them.
What if you don’t send one and it’s required?
The professionals we spoke to use this omission as a clear means of reducing the applicant pool. Mary Jo Loparco, Director of Talent Management at AmeriCares says, “If we make it a requirement and somebody doesn’t include it, it’s likely we will not consider them because it shows they don’t follow directions. We really want to know an individual is thoughtfully considering our organization.” She continues, “They are a pretty important part of our consideration process in hiring.”
Okay, so hiring managers read them. What might they be looking for?
Details about your interest in the cause area and the organization itself
Deborah Collins, Director of Strategic Initiatives at The Ford Foundation reflects on her years as a hiring manager, “I want to see if the application is boilerplate (standard generic cover letter and resume) or if the applicant has spent effort and time crafting something aligned to the posting/role.” She also adds, “Show extracurricular activities that are relevant to the position or organization. If you are looking for a job at Ford, any volunteer positions that show social justice involvement would shine through.”
According to Mary Helen Foglia, Senior Recruiter at Planned Parenthood, “Credentials are great, CVs are great, but it’s up to the recruiter to make the connections between what they did”…unless your cover letter makes that connection for them. She explains, “I believe cover letters provide us with a view into the person and insight into how they view their credentials and fitting into the organization. Sometimes it provides us insight into what we believe their legacy will be here.”
Written communication skills, as well as appropriate spelling and grammar
At AmeriCares, an emphasis is placed on writing in almost all positions, so the cover letter is used as a writing sample. “We are definitely looking at their ability to write,” Loparco states. “In general, in almost any position here you’re going to have to know how to write concisely, summarize, and get to the point, and have all the right grammar. It’s really important to every role.”
She also notes that they are even more important for particular roles. “We look at cover letters especially for those applying to fundraising and development positions because a big part of a being a successful fundraiser is about customizing your message to a donor. If an applicant can’t articulate that in a cover letter, that’s kind of telling that they won’t be able to deliver on the job.”
Also pay careful attention to names and other details. “I immediately trash any that call me Mr. Collins. I don’t even read them,” warns Deborah Collins. “If you go through the trouble of personalizing it, get the name right.”
The contribution you can make to the organization
The cover letters that have really wowed Collins are those that clearly show their intended contributions to the organization. “It’s as important as meeting the requirements of the posting,” she explains. She uses the following questions to assess the letters: “What do they want to learn while they are here? Do they take the risk to highlight an area where they don’t have a lot of experience because they want to dive more deeply into it in order to round out their skills?”
Foglia echoes this sentiment, “Do your research on the organization. If you are not following the company but think it’s a great opportunity, be very succinct on how your experience is going to bring value to the organization. Understand what the values and the vision of the organization are before you write that letter.” She adds, “Especially with nonprofits, always look for what impact you are going to make on the organization.”
Career plan and vision
Another way applicants get Collins’ attention is in regards to taking ownership. “I look at the cover letter as a writing sample that is thoughtfully crafted to the job you are going for, giving a sense of (their creativity) and their role in the larger context of the organization.” She describes that the cover letter provides, “A lot of references and touch points for where they see themselves in their career and the organization.” When she hires for assistant roles, she notes, “It’s interesting to see if they see themselves as a ‘career assistant’ or if they are going to use it as a platform to progress to new roles at the organization. It’s a two way street. I need to understand what they deliver and what they need to be delivered to help them.”
What else do hiring managers want you to know?
Be familiar with the organization’s branding
Aside from double and triple checking your cover letter for any grammar mistakes, also pay careful attention to the spelling of the organization and the way the organization presents its name. For example, AmeriCares uses a capital “C” in its name. Loparco remarks that this is part of its branding: “Make sure you get the branding correctly and use the branding the way the organization uses in the spelling and showcasing of its name.”
Don’t regurgitate your resume on your cover letter
Loparco advises giving more details in your cover letter. “We are looking for them to tell us something that is different from the resume, not just a regurgitation. We want to know why them? Why does it make sense for us to consider them as an applicant? What about the mission of the organization is appealing to them?”
Get someone to review your document
For those who do not consider writing their strong suit, Collins offers the following advice: “Find somebody whose work you admire—a colleague, friend—who writes well and have them look at your cover letter with you. It really helps to get a different perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people will oversell or undersell themselves.”
Tags: cover letter
Job interviews make you nervous? Learn how to prepare and impressLet's chat: Taking control of your professional development
I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.