Q: Articles say human resources departments no longer read cover letters, so why are they still expected? I also notice many online employment applications present attaching a cover letter as an option and not a requirement. But I've also read that a separate letter should be written for each company. This seems to conflict with the idea of scrapping them.
I struggle with writing anything about myself, sometimes spending a couple of hours on each one. By the time I finish it, I already feel defeated, knowing that whatever I have written is not good enough. Will it be held against me if I don't include one? Will it be worse to include one that's poorly written? The process is painstaking for me, and I never know what to say.
A: Articles that update what's expected of job applicants and provide statistics on preferences are interesting, but they're not the final word on procedures. HR professionals carry out whatever process they each think works best. That's also true pertaining to errors.
For example, a 20-something applicant wrote a "corny-as-can be" cover letter that read like a page from a children's fairy tale. To top it off, the letter had a couple of typos, which the manager discovered as she read it to her staff. Though everyone thought the letter was overdone and childish, she wanted to interview the person. The included resume was factual and average and listed only one job under "Employment." Still, the manager wanted to meet the person who had written the fantasy cover letter. In the interview, she discovered the fairly new graduate had a positive and fun personality, and the manager felt she had potential. Hiring her was a gamble that paid off, as this new employee turned out to be a "joy to work with" and a "creative thinker." The manager went with her gut feeling about hiring the person, and it worked out fabulously. It also could have been a disaster, but if that had happened, the manager could have fired the employee during the probation period. There are no set rules for cover letters, only strong suggestions and the luck of receiving an interview.
Here are five strong suggestions to help you and other perplexed job applicants decide what to include in a cover letter:
1) Be original. Take risks by sharing stories (not necessarily related to past positions) that share life lessons learned. This adds depth to your core values and beliefs.
2) Be honest. With the current trend on storytelling, your "stories" should be true. Cover letters are for informing and marketing you, not for conveying fantasy. (Lies will eventually be revealed, and you will have destroyed your reputation.)
3) Have your cover letter proofread by someone with excellent grammar skills. A student once said, "Accuracy shouldn't matter because so many people can't write and won't know the difference." That's like saying, "Be average because most people are average." A better goal would be, "Strive for excellence in everything you do so no one brands you as 'average.'" If your writing has poor grammar, sentence structure, punctuation and no originality, your cover letter could hurt your chances of getting an interview — if anyone reads it.
4) You could be asked to interview if your cover letter holds fascinating and additional information about you — e.g., unusual experiences such as missionary travel or extraordinary volunteer work — as "personal interests" is no longer a standard category on resumes.
5) If you create a positive new approach to marketing yourself that cannot be done in a resume, you may increase your chances of getting interviewed.
Email career and life coach [email protected] with your workplace issues and experiences. For more information, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/At-Work-Lindsey-Novak.