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Why a Good Cover Letter Is Critical to Your HR Job Search


A woman is writing on a notebook while sitting at a desk.


​You've put in a lot of work to get your resume just right. Now, you're looking at job postings, ready to hit "submit," when you come across a position requiring a cover letter. Rather than write one, you could ignore this job, especially since you've found other job ads that explicitly say, "No cover letter!" What should you do?

Sit down and write a cover letter. That's because having a cover letter is absolutely critical to supplementing your HR resume. Let me give you three reasons why:

1. It shows extra effort. 

Employers want someone who is going to go the extra mile. When you take the time to craft a cover letter that is exceptionally tailored to the position you are interested in, hiring managers will take notice.

Take the time to write a cover letter because others will not. Just knowing that you might be 1 of 50 candidates who actually submits a cover letter puts you ahead of the competition.

2. You are allowed to get personal. 

I like to think of creating resumes, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles as being like wearing a new suit. Your resume is the suit jacket—you are buttoned-up and mean business. The cover letter is when you have taken off your suit jacket, but your tie is still firmly knotted and your sleeves are down: a bit more approachable, but with an air of respectability. LinkedIn profiles are when you've loosened your tie and rolled up your sleeves. You can play a little in this state and have an aura of "letting loose" without going overboard.

A cover letter is the perfect place to inject some of your personality so the hiring staff can get a feel for who you are, rather than just what you can do. It's a good in-between from the resume to your LinkedIn profile.

3. It shows enthusiasm. 

By writing a cover letter, you are sailing ahead of the competition. Your resume has shown the recruiter that there's an actual person interested in the opportunity. With a cover letter, you're taking the time to show that you have researched the organization you want to work for and are excited about this opportunity.

An effective cover letter will be tailored to the position you want and can include information that fills in the gaps for what hiring managers are looking for. For example, maybe the job description says one of the responsibilities will be to manage the staffing process. You could add a section to explain how you've used your creativity in recruiting, hiring and retaining staff members who have shown longevity with a company. Or maybe you've noticed that the business you're applying to values its ecological footprint, a topic you are passionate about. Include that in your cover letter.

Assuming you agree that you need to write a cover letter, here is guidance that will help you create a document that will land you interviews:

Use the same header. 

However you formatted your name and contact information on your resume, you'll want to do it the same on your cover letter. That keeps it at the forefront of the hiring manager's mind.

For example:

MARY SOUTHERN
Austin, Texas | 641.351.9492 | mary@resumeassassin.com | LinkedIn: mary-southern

Then, format the rest of your letter in a formal letter style with date, name of person, name of company and so on right-aligned.

It's also smart to use the hiring person's name when possible. If you do a little digging on LinkedIn or the company website, you may find that name so you can address your cover letter specifically to them. (Hint: It's also easier to write a letter to an actual person, so whether you have a name or not, remember a person is going to read your letter.) In the event you can't find a name, then simply address your cover letter to "Hiring Manager." 

Short and sweet is key. 

While resumes often run two or more pages, a cover letter needs to stay at one page. In fact, the optimal letter is between 250 and 400 words. That doesn't give you a lot of room, so you will have to be choosey on what you include and leave out.

Make sure to carefully read the employer's submission guidelines. If they want a PDF, be sure to send it as such. Be on the lookout for other specifics in the job posting such as format, length, margins and content so that you can craft your cover letter to their requirements. It's another way to show you are invested in them and want the job.

Also, NEVER submit your cover letter (or resume) without proofreading it. A few tricks that can help you catch errors are:

  1. Read your documents out loud.
  2. Change the font to Comic Sans (remember to change it back).
  3. Go line by line, starting at the bottom and working your way to the top. 

Each of these suggestions tricks you into seeing the words differently so your brain will not fill in blanks and fixes automatically.

One other tactic is to use lots of action verbs. For example, instead of writing "I was responsible for payroll," change it to read, "I spearheaded a group of eight exceptional team members in the payroll department."

It is fine to dread writing a cover letter. They are not easy to write well, plus you may have thought that creating a great resume was all that's really needed. But remember that unlike your resume, your cover letter definitely will be read by another human being, not an applicant tracking system. Given that, it can be the deciding factor between you and another candidate. 

Mary Southern is the founder of Resume Assassin in Austin, Texas, and offers more than 12 years of experience in resume writing, human resources, and career and academic advising. She has helped thousands of professionals across a variety of industries break into a wide range of leading companies. Learn more at www.resumeassassin.com and connect with Mary at www.linkedin.com/in/mary-southern.

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