Truth be told, some hiring managers will never read your cover letter.
I know screeners who delete the cover letter immediately, some who forward it on to others but never read it themselves, and others who print it out only to staple it behind the resume.
But you know what else they tell me?
If they find a candidate who looks strong in the resume but leaves some questions unanswered (say, about a gap between jobs or a demotion in job responsibilities), they go back and find the cover letter… in their physical or virtual garbage can presumably.
So what’s this mean to you, as a job seeker?
To those with a flawless, linear employment record where one job seamlessly flows into the next, staying within the same line of work and the same type of company, it means you’re off the hook. Use a template. Have a friend write your letter. Copy a sample from a book or website… maybe this website. (Actually, we include cover letter and thank you letter templates for free with all of our resume services.) Point being, as long as it’s grammatically correct and doesn’t read like a 5th grader, you’ll be fine.
But for the rest of us with some explaining to do, the cover letter is our BEST chance to gain some leverage. It’s a rare opportunity to EXPLAIN something unusual, unfavorable, or just plain complicated about your work history.
I’m sure you’ve read somewhere that, with resumes, you never have a second chance to make that first impression. Well, now you do. And ironically your second chance resides in the document that’s supposed to introduce your résumé: The Cover Letter.
In their prosy, letter-like format, cover letters afford you the ability to literally explain the topics you most fear in the interview: your demotion, that year of unemployment, the scuffle with your office manager, the quick demise of your startup due to someone’s gambling habit, your lack of education…
In my experience, there’s always a way to present such information without saying too much. And there’s no better time to get it all out in the open than in the cover letter before you get to the interview where you can prove your ability to put both feet in your mouth.
In short, embrace the challenge you’re facing, then find a way to present this information to your next employer. In writing.
If that seems like a tall order, we can help you find the words.