Are you wasting your time with that cover letter?

When you last applied for a job, did you include a covering letter or statement?  If you did you might have been wasting your time – only 18% of managers think that having a good cover letter was important when applying for a job. But if you didn’t, it could have cost you the job as well.

When CVs came with all the rest of the post, a covering letter meant that the recipient knew what job you were applying for, and why you’d sent in your details, especially when the same person could be dealing with many positions.  The cover letter was a chance to go into more detail about your personality and experience in a time when CVs were more perfunctory in style; the modern CV should contain a lot more detail.

The CV has become a much more dominant part of a job application.  And in an age of automated e-mail sorting, the signifying qualities of the cover letter are no longer required.  In fact when you apply for a job online through a job board, often the notifying e-mail we receive tucks any covering statement away in a small font as an unappealing block of text: the more you write, the less likely it will be read at all!

If a recruiter is only looking at a CV for 5-10 seconds before deciding if you’re a yes, a no or a maybe, a long rambling cover letter won’t get much of a look in.  Just like CVs, they can be so full of meaningless clichés that they won’t always tell you anything important.  So since no-one seems to be reading them, can you get away with not writing a covering letter at all?

Well, that depends.  If you’re applying through a recruitment agency like us, or going through an online job board directly to an employer, you can probably get away with just a few cursory sentences, just so you aren’t leaving the box blank.  Writing a 1,000 word treatise on your skills and suitability for a job role is likely just wasting your time.

But sometimes a covering letter or personal statement is necessary and writing a poor one won’t get you anywhere.  For a start, there is that 18% of hiring managers I mentioned earlier who will put a lot of weight to your covering letter.  In highly competitive jobs markets, a good covering letter is what will help spot the best applicants – for recent graduates for instance, where candidates will have near identical CVs, having a vibrant covering letter will set you apart. Similarly, the NHS won’t accept a standard CV and will expect a comprehensive personal statement to demonstrate your competence, where applicants will have very similar work histories.

Writing a good cover letter can also help to sell your written communication skills, if this will be important in your desired career – perhaps an administrative position where you’re preparing reports and writing lots of e-mails.  However, in more creative roles, accompanying your CV with a portfolio of previous work will be a more effective showcase of your talent.

Really for job seekers, the cover letter can be a bit of a catch 22. You’ll end up putting lots of effort into one, only for employers and recruiters to never read it. Or, you’ll skip over doing it and it will cost you the job.  So our advice? Well, make how much you write reflect how much you want a job, because you won’t know who will be reading and how much you want to impress them.