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Here's why a recruiter might ignore your cover letter

Job search expert and HR executive Lynda Spiegel explains how recruiters really feel about this part of a job application.
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There’s plenty of advice for the best way to conduct your job search, but the most hotly contested piece of advice concerns cover letters. There are those who cite examples of how a well-written cover letter landed the candidate an interview, but the majority of recruiters don’t read them. You probably wouldn’t mind skipping the task of writing one, but when you click to upload your resume, you’ll typically see the option to upload a cover letter as well.

I’ve never understood why job candidates need to write a cover letter; I periodically survey recruiters and HR professionals in my LinkedIn network and every time I’ve asked about cover letters, 75 percent of those who respond say they never read them. A former recruiter at Apple agrees. As a human resources executive, I never read them. When my inbox contained 50 – 100 applications, I had no time to open two documents per candidate, so I read only the resume.

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But lack of time isn’t the only reason for ignoring cover letters. Most HR professionals admit that cover letters don’t affect their decision to interview candidates. And while the small minority of recruiters who do read cover letters feel that they offer insight into the candidate’s ability to write, that flies in the face of reality. Job candidates often rely on a cover letter template they downloaded, or they ask a resume writer to do it for them.

When I ask job seekers what they believe to be the purpose of a cover letter, I get one of three responses. Some think that cover letters are important because they summarize key points in the resume. Others insist that cover letters serve to customize their application for the specific job. The majority of people provide a cover letter simply because they are asked for one.

However, a good resume begins with a summary of your qualifications, so there’s no need to summarize them in a cover letter. Furthermore, if you’re writing a cover letter to address the specifics of a particular job, it may never be read, which raises the question: why do employers ask you to upload both a cover letter and resume?

Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software is the reason. A cover letter will help your application rank higher in the ATS software, and as far as I can determine, that’s about the only function the cover letter serves. The software searches for keywords that match keywords in the job description, and if there are enough matches, your application will rank higher. This means that you should never use a cover letter template or pre-write a cover letter because you need to write one that uses the identical terminology in the job description, and that includes the employer’s name and job title.

This example for a Global Account Director role at BCD Travel lists the following requirements:

  • Manage corporate accounts in two or more regions (NA, LATAM, EMEA or APAC)
  • Responsible for targeting client-specific global growth opportunities, positioning, contracting and implementation
  • Global portion of assigned client must exceed 50% of account base or, if newly implemented, is expected to exceed 50% of total responsibility
  • Manage one, or more, accounts with global volume in excess of $15 million

And here’s how to write the ATS-compliant cover letter:

Dear Hiring Manager:

Please accept my application for the position of Global Account Manager at BCD Travel.

My resume details my experience managing several global accounts that ranged from $7 – $25 million in countries throughout EMEA, North America, and LATAM with approximately 50% – 60% located outside the U.S.

While this cover letter is notable for its brevity and specificity, remember that you’re writing it for the ATS, not for human eyes.

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There is one exception to this approach, and that is when you email your resume directly to the hiring manager, or to a network connection at your target employer. In this instance, it’s especially important not to use a pre-written letter. Recruiters and hiring managers can spot a pre-written cover letter, and it’s a huge turn-off. In the subject line of your email, put the title of the job you’re applying for, OR, if you’re sending your resume to a network contact, write “connected through [mutual contact name]” in the subject line. Here’s an example:

Dear Hiring Manager:

I have applied for the position of Global Account Manager at BCD Travel via your website. I am confident that my qualifications represent an excellent fit for this position, and have attached my resume which details my experience managing several global accounts that ranged from $7 – $25 million in regions throughout Europe, Latin America and North America, with approximately 50% – 60% located outside the U.S. [Go into a little more detail about those accounts].

Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to discussing my qualifications for this role in greater detail.

Candidates have shown me covers letters that are too long, and often more about themselves than the role they’re applying for. It’s not a good strategy to mention why this position is important to you; the best strategy is to position yourself as the answer to the employer’s problem. That problem is to hire the best candidate for the job, not to help you fulfill your career goals. Your best shot at achieving those career goals is to market yourself effectively by writing a resume that articulates your value to employers.