Secretary bored at workAsk any corporate recruiter for a large company drowning in a sea of resumes and dealing with a massive, frustrating ATS what he/she thinks of cover letters, and the person’s answer is likely to be “pointless” at best and “irritating” at worst. When a recruiter is already dealing with an onslaught of information from a constantly streaming fire hose of candidates, chances are, he or she may not even SEE a cover letter. Here’s why:

It didn’t come through: Lots of Applicant Tracking Systems and job board portals give you the option of adding your cover letter to your application, but that’s not the whole story. Many times, depending on the (internet) proximity to the actual company, your application (cover letter and resume included) is torn apart, stripped down, parsed into sections that will work inside of the company’s internal system and put back together in that organization’s particular protocol before human eyes even see it. Since resumes are the lifeblood of the recruiting application, the information in these usually makes it through, but since cover letters are a block of text that can be ignored easily or error-ed out allmany don’t make it through.

They don’t have time: The average time that a recruiter scans or reads a resume is between 6-30 seconds and it seems to be going down every year. These people are racing through your resume and probably would love to read your cover letter (if you are their cousin or best friend). Right now, though, it’s get through that stack of resumes or miss Burrito Day in the cafeteria. Which would YOU choose?

They aren’t ready to emotionally invest in you: I know this one sounds like a stretch, but stick with me. The truth is recruiters are trying to find the very closest match to the job they have open. For all the talk about workforce planning and cultural fit, that’s not what their brains are thinking about right now. So before they read your cover letter, they need to see what skills you have. Otherwise, why risk liking you because of your killer cover letter?

So why even have cover letters at all? Are they just a useless invention, designed to make jobseekers work harder than they have to? Well, not really. You see cover letters do have a great place in the job hunt strategy of many folks and there are even recruiters out there who love getting and reading them (and sometimes making fun of them on Facebook). A few situations where a cover letter is a must have:

Employee referrals. If someone inside the company has recommended you for a specific position, a cover letter (along with a STELLAR resume) is a great way to back them up. Coming on strong can be an advantage in this particular arena. In this instance, reference the person who referred you for the position and mention one or two things that you’ve discovered in researching the potential hiring company. (Recruiters, look for these things, obviously!)

Startup situations. A traditional cover letter in a startup situation? Maren says yes! Here’s why: In startups, cultural fit generally comes closer to the beginning of the process. Also because many new businesses are waiting until they are drowning in volume hiring or get seed capital or series A or whatever, they don’t have a need for a fancy ATS that will boot your application with cover letter out the door.

When it’s your dream job. If you’ve been dreaming about working for a company forever, don’t let the same old rules dictate your job search. Hopefully, you’ve been researching this company for awhile and may have an idea how to get your cover letter in front of someone who will actually read it. In fact, I just sat down with my 11-year old to write the first of many letters to Lego, the place he WILL work when he grows up.

Bottom line, you HAVE to have a cover letter, because the one time you don’t include one, it’ll be the thing that costs you the job, but keep in mind that you need your resume, phone screen, internal referral and social profiles to be impeccable as well.

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