A question I’ve been getting a lot lately at my resume seminars is: “Are people reading cover letters anymore? I haven’t had much response from them. Should I include one with my resume or not?”

In the past year, I have interviewed hiring managers, VPs of HR, and recruiters of more than 50 companies locally on the topic of hiring. What I’ve learned is that unfortunately, most hiring managers do not read cover letters. They are inundated with resumes and are already overwhelmed with a large number of submissions. They simply don’t have the time.

Also, if a cover letter is written poorly or without thought, it can actually hurt your chances of moving forward in the hiring process. That said, if you are singled out as a strong candidate based on your resume, a well-written cover letter can be the one thing that helps you rise above the competition.

Great cover letters convey who you are in relationship to the exact needs of the employer. They also provide an opportunity for you to address questions that your resume can’t answer such as: “What made you go back to school?” “Why is there a two year employment gap between these two jobs?” or “Why are you making a career change?”

If you are sending a cover letter along with your resume, here are some things you should keep in mind:

Don’t address your cover letter to a deceased founder. I recently interviewed Wanda Todd with LeMaster Daniels – a CPA firm with 12 offices in Washington and Idaho. The company is over 100 years old and the founders of the firm are now long gone. She still gets cover letters addressed to Mr. LeMaster or Mr. Daniels. Wanda puts these candidates in the “do not hire” list. Do your research and show the company that you care.

Do address the correct employer on your cover letter.
 I spoke recently with Gwendolyn Payton, a shareholder at the law firm Lane Powell, who remembers many resumes where the cover letter was addressed to the wrong company. Most likely, the candidate was running through a list of employers and changing the greeting on the same letter. If you’re applying at Microsoft, don’t say, “Dear Amazon.”

Don’t use cover letter templates. Gwendolyn also told me that many attorneys are mass mailing their resume and cover letters to a wide variety of firms. After a while, she says, you start to see the generic out-of-a-career-book cover-letter template and that takes away from your professionalism. It shows that you’re not that serious about working for a particular company and instead just want to work at any company.

Do show the company “a little love.”
 In other words, employers respond well when they know you are targeting them specifically. Wanda Todd says it could be as simple as saying that you recently saw her firm represented at an event or appreciate what they’re doing for the community. Another technique is to do a little research and show that you understand the challenges the company is facing and how your skills can help.

Employers want to feel important and talk to candidates who are taking the time to understand their needs. At the end of the day, that’s why they created a job description. Something at their company is not getting done and they need your help. Should you be able to articulate your value and experience in relationship to their exact needs you will have greatly increased your odds of getting an interview.

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