Q&A: Are Cover Letters Still Useful?

by: Karen Alphonse Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Q: Are cover letters useful?   I hear employers are not reading them anymore. 

A: We are in a new world of employment, and protocols are evolving.   In the past, employers relied on cover letters as both a screening device and as a way to decide whether an applicant offered matching skills, credentials and a high level of interest in a particular role.

These days, my sense is employers use the cover letter as a candidate development tool.   In other words, once employers conduct initial screens for skill parity and interest, the cover becomes an additional tool to really get to know a candidate.

In this highly competitive context, it is critical for your cover letter to reflect your personal style and for it to be aligned with your career goals. For instance, if you project yourself as an action-oriented leader, your cover letter needs to reflect decisive action with concrete results.  This characterization has implications for the kind of language you use, therefore, avoid the passive tense, do not blame others for past failures, avoid long, complex sentences and be aware of other subtle word choices that undermine the energy and sense of movement in your materials.  As an action-oriented candidate, you should focus the cover letter exclusively on actions taken and successful results achieved.  Wherever possible, your claims need to be corroborated in qualitative terms.  Dollar amounts can be compelling and direct.  You may even want to use it to request a meeting.  Why not?

On the other hand, if your strengths point to thought skills, analysis and the ability to contribute to strategy, let your cover letter demonstrate similar kinds of skills.  The letter should generate thought, show that you thoroughly and completely grasp issues and that you have a unique perspective to share.  Your language can be analytical and frankly academic.

Essentially, the cover letter can (and should) convey a consistent message with the rest of your application.  Make certain there is alignment amongst your materials so as to best benefit you in the job search process.

Contact Karen Alphonse at Karena@execSearches.com or visit ExecSearches.com for more information about our career coaching services.

ExecSearches.com is a job board for nonprofit job seekers interested in fundraising, management and executive nonprofit jobs.

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