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When You Need a Cover Letter (And When You Don't)

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Including a cover letter with any application or résumé seems like a no-brainer. But do companies and hiring managers still look for cover letters? 

Knocking on the door
For many hiring professionals, cover letters still provide a valuable framework that impacts how companies view your résumé. According to a recent OfficeTeam survey, 86 percent of executives thought cover letters were a valuable resource in the hiring process. 

"The cover letter is the elevator pitch for your résumé," declares Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith, a Massachusetts-based etiquette consulting firm. "It's your best bet for grabbing the recruiter's interest so that the recruiter wants to review your résumé." 

Smith says that even with changes in technology, a written introduction is beneficial. "Bold job seekers can use the body of their e-mail as a cover letter and their résumé as the attachment." 

Showing off your skills
Karen Renzi is co-owner of the New York-based marketing and design firm Beyondus. Though design applicants are often required to submit a multipage portfolio as well as a résumé, Renzi says she still prefers to see a cover letter. 
Renzi outlined several reasons why she and husband Alessandro, who co-owns Beyondus, look at cover letters in the application process: 

To demonstrate attention to detail and ability to follow instruction. "We explicitly list a cover letter as a requirement on all job postings," Renzi declares. "Résumés submitted without cover letters are usually discarded without even being reviewed."

To gauge interest in the opportunity, versus desperation for ANY job.  "The more personal the letter is to our business, the better. You wouldn't believe how many times we've seen letters that are glaringly obvious canned messages," Renzi muses.  "Sometimes candidates even leave in other companies' names or positions." 

To measure writing, communication skills and professionalism.  Renzi thinks this is an especially important test for applicants and looks carefully to see what strengths -- and weaknesses -- their letter may reveal. "Can't string together a thought? Don't know how to use spell check yet? We expect our team to come prepared with those basic skills; we don't want to be grammar teachers." 

When you don't need a cover letter
Though most industries and most companies seem to prefer a cover letter, there are some situations where they are generally not a requirement. 

"Generally, information technology clients with whom I've worked aren't interested in cover letters," shares Alan Guinn, managing director of Guinn Consultancy in Bristol, Tenn.  He says that retail businesses are mixed on their requirements. Most part-time positions, including part-time retail jobs, don't require a cover letter or a résumé. 

Many hiring managers in creative industries, including film and graphic design, also have varying requirements. They often prefer to see samples from the applicant's portfolio when they take their initial look at a candidate. They are often looking for a display of practical knowledge. 

Guinn recalls a scenario where he screened applicants for a pharmaceutical marketing group. "We were more interested in their ability to generate marketing ideas than a cover letter. One candidate sent a PowerPoint presentation, another sent a marketing plan, and a third sent a mocked-up tri-fold brochure." Both the client and Guinn found these to be far more effective than a cover letter. 

What's your next step?
If you're unsure whether you're required to submit a cover letter, check the specifications of the job to which you're applying.

"You shouldn't send a cover letter if the employer or recruiter has specifically told you that no letter is necessary," suggests Lauren Milligan, founder of Illinois-based consulting firm 

Otherwise, you should play it safe and include a cover letter. At the very minimum, some form of communication should accompany your résumé, even if it's only a basic letter acknowledging the recipient and thanking him for reviewing your submission. 

Last Updated: 27/08/2009 - 3:01 PM

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