The Case for Cover Letters, and Making Yours Come Alive

Man writing a cover letter

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Are cover letters dead? Ask Google and you’ll find several article headlines on popular career and business websites asking the same question. Maybe reports of the cover letters’ demise are exaggerated, but many surveys concur, some of which indicate that 80-90 percent of hiring managers either don’t read cover letters or they don’t consider them important.

Job seekers don’t necessarily need to know the history of cover letters or check the pulse of this so-called living document that is updated each time you submit an application. You should still write cover letters, especially if an employer requests one. Just be mindful of two things: 1.) Avoid spending too much time on your cover letter, and 2.) Make your message meaningful in case a hiring manager does read it and thinks it’s important.

Steve Dalton, program director and senior career consultant at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, offers practical, time-saving tips about resumes and cover letters in his book “The Job Closer,” asserting that job seekers should concentrate on what will really get them a job: networking. He advises people to dedicate only three of every 100 hours of their job search on their resume and tells his readers that there is no such thing as the perfect cover letter. Still, he’s a huge proponent of the cover letter.

“Cover letters are far more interesting than resumes,” Dalton wrote. “They illustrate how well you can construct an argument (when responding to the question ‘Why should we consider you?’ specifically). The cover letter informs the employer about your knowledge of the role and how your skills make you well suited for it. “

Even if an employer anticipates a cover letter to be a formality or a garnish — and the resume/CV to be the meat and potatoes of application materials — it provides an employer a one-page writing sample from the candidate. If anything, the cover letter will show how a candidate will communicate with their manager if they are hired, such as the right amount of details in an email about a project update.

This is especially important in higher education, where voluminous CVs are the norm for faculty applicants and the cover letter is more succinct and subjective. Dalton uses another food analogy to stress the creative outlet that cover letters provide.

“Think of your resume bullets as a list of ingredients and your cover letter as a free sample of the dish you’d prepare from those ingredients,” Dalton wrote. “Use the cover letter to add color and flavor by better establishing the degree of difficulty of a particular accomplishment or by positioning yourself as uniquely qualified, knowledgeable, or motivated in a specific area, rather than just proficient.”

Dalton recommends following the RAC Model of Reason-Anecdote-Connection to write a cover letter that is 200-300 words and consists of five paragraphs: a short introduction about your intentions, three RAC paragraphs about why you are a good fit for the job, and a closing paragraph asking for an interview.

Choose only three reasons that answer “Why should we consider you?” Include your skills or attributes that tie directly to the job description. Including more reasons will dilute your top three. For each reason, provide an anecdote, or story and evidence, that proves your skill or attribute. Then, finally, connect the reason to something the employer cares about, such as increasing enrollment or supporting their student learning outcomes.

“If you use the RAC Model to concisely develop your Reason with Anecdotes and then connect them back to the employer’s needs, you will dramatically and favorably differentiate your cover letter,” Dalton added.

Otherwise, if your cover letter is you simply droning on about yourself and restating your resume/CV, or if it is a standardized letter that you update with a different institution’s name each time you submit an application, then the cover letter will do nothing for your candidacy.

In that case, the cover letter is as good as dead.

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