Not only is it very much alive, a well-written cover letter may open the door to an interview for your dream job. As an executive recruiter, I’m often asked about resumes, but the cover letter itself has a very different function and value for job seekers. If you’ve been asking yourself, “Should I write a cover letter?” my answer is a resounding YES. That said, how you build and deliver your cover letter is vital to its usefulness and to your success.

What if my cover letter reads a lot like my resume?
Too often cover letters are restatements of a resume, which is a problem. If your cover letter is too long and detailed, a prospective employer won’t bother reading your resume. The cover letter is useful only if it provides an introduction to a person. It’s your chance to convey your understanding of the company’s needs and to build anticipation about you as a candidate.

What do I include in my cover letter?
Try to pique a potential employer’s curiosity by refraining from answering every question but providing enough information to encourage further interest. The cover letter should include an introduction of yourself, a couple of key points that differentiate you from your peers, and a request for an interview.

How important is a cover letter?
Compared to the resume’s focus on skills and technical experience, the cover letter offers an opportunity to convey something of your personality. For many employers, the fit of a candidate into the workplace culture can be more important than the particular skill set, as long as the individual meets job qualifications and has a good work history.

How long should my cover letter be?
More words are not necessarily better. You want to grab people’s attention—not risk losing it by asking them to read a lengthy letter. While the actual length may vary according to the span of your career or experience, I recommend aiming for half of a page and no more than two-thirds of a page (8-15 sentences). The cover letter should be concise and brief—not to mention grammatically correct—or it’s going to hurt your candidacy.

Because most people think they write well, they may not pay as much attention as they should to the drafting process. Just as it’s good to have several people assess your resume before sending it out, you should apply the same rigorous review to your cover letter. Grammatical errors, wordiness, and generally poor composition will be a hindrance, not a help, to your job prospects.

Who will read my cover letter?
You may never know who will see it. Even if you are applying to a large company with an HR department that screens job applicants, you should always presume that your cover letter might be forwarded to a CFO, Vice President or Senior-level person. So you need to gear your letter to both HR and the individual making the hiring decision. In other words, make sure your cover letter is appropriate for all intended audiences, don’t make it too technical, and err on the side of formality.

What if I don’t “need” a cover letter?
Even if you are engaging a recruiter or using a third party in your job search that may deal exclusively with resumes, a cover letter is worthwhile for preparing you for further steps in your job search process. And in cases where you are using an email as your only introduction to your resume, make sure your email is as polished as a cover letter would be—it can make all the difference.

So are cover letters important? Based on my experience working with candidates and clients across the country, strong cover letters are not only important, they are a critical piece in building your effective and successful candidacy.

What are your best practices with regard to writing cover letters? Please contribute your ideas.

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