The Basics of Cover Letters

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When you think "first impression," an image of you, confidently shaking the hiring manager's hand, might come to mind. But a hiring manager has a very different picture - that of a mile-high stack of paper. In order to show off that slick new suit and those freshly-shined shoes, your cover letter needs to rise to the top of the heap.

"Hiring managers do indeed look at cover letters," says Sandy Allgeier, a former corporate HR executive and author of The Personal Credibility Factor. "I'm looking to see if the cover letter speaks to organization."

Indeed, the rumor that cover letters are passé is just that - a rumor. "I do like to see a cover letter accompany a candidate's resume," says Doug Gerlach, vice president of strategic business development for BetterInvesting, Inc., an investment education organization headquartered in Madison Heights, Mich. "A cover letter demonstrates that the candidate is seriously interested in learning more, and believes that our company is a good fit."

In fact, as the second line of defense, they may play a larger role than many candidates realize. "Cover letters are important on the second level of review," Allgeier explains. "It's a standard process. Resumes are sorted into three piles: yes, no and maybe. If the resume is a yes, then the hiring manager will go to the cover letter."

Opportunity to Shine

Hiring managers look closely to see if the applicant has given the cover letter that extra touch. "I understand that a person who is looking for a job might be sending resumes to a lot of companies, but I don't want to think that we're part of a mass mailing," Gerlach says. "The letter doesn't have to be long, or repeat what's on the resume, but highlighting some element of his or her experience as it relates to the job description is always a good idea."

It's also a chance to explain why you should be considered for the job - even if you're overqualified. "If your skills are way beyond what the job requires, the cover letter is your chance to explain why this career move would be a good idea at this time in your life," Allgeier says. "For example, if you're returning to the workplace, but you're not looking for a VP position, use the cover letter to tell your story - that you've been there, done that and you're looking to scale back."


Finally, don't blow it in the final seconds of the game. Take the time to carefully proofread. "Nothing can torpedo a candidate's chances of getting a position so quickly as typographical or spelling errors -- particularly if you claim 'detail-oriented' as a skill on your resume," Gerlach notes.

Amy Rauch Neilson is a business writer based in Belleville, Mich.