what IS a cover letter, anyway?

A reader writes:

This is a long email to ask a very short question: what is a cover letter?

I know it’s really basic, but that’s why it’s throwing me so much! How would you explain what a cover letter is, to someone who had never heard of one? I just ran into this situation at work and I thought it might be a good post for your blog (so, selfish disclaimer, I can just pull it up for people next time this happens). I actually tried to do this, but I realized that while you have covered writing a good cover letter, they weren’t quite what was needed.

Context: I work in a library, and I had an immigrant student from a very different cultural background asking for help with navigating a job website. I discovered as we were doing this that not only did he not have a cover letter, but had never heard of such of thing. He was South African, and they just don’t have them there (apparently :D ).

I tried to explain what they were — that basically, if someone picked up your resume it should explain why that resume is there (i.e. what they’re applying for), why you’re interested, and any extra information that wasn’t appropriate for the resume itself, and a few other things. I also got him to turn his objective into part of the letter, getting rid of that — but he honestly had no idea what I was talking about, and had trouble believing that it was required here and in a whole bunch of other countries.

While his computer literacy wasn’t ideal (which was why I was helping in the first place) and his English wasn’t perfect, he was definitely not stupid, and could understand me perfectly well. So it was clearly the foreignness of the concept (and/or my explanation) that was the problem.

So, basically, can you help me out with the next one? What IS a cover letter? Why bother to write one? How do you explain it to someone who has quite literally never heard of such a thing and doesn’t understand why you’d need something other than the resume, or why the hiring company would even expect it?

A cover letter is a letter outlining why you’re interested in the job and why you’d excel at it.

And the reason we use them is because people are more than just their work experience. They have personalities, motivations, habits, and all sorts of reasons they’d be great at a particular job that aren’t as easily seen from a resume as they might be from a short letter making the case. Otherwise, employers wouldn’t even need to bother to interview — they could just screen resumes, verify that candidates’ experience and accomplishments were accurate, and then hire the person with the best resume.

But that’s not how it works. Employers aren’t just hiring experience. They’re hiring people, and there’s a lot more to most people than just what their job history shows. And when done well, a cover letter takes a first step at explaining that additional piece of what you’re all about.

The example I always think of is when I was hiring for an assistant job and a candidate mentioned that her friends always teased her about her obsessive organization because she color-coded her closet and used a spreadsheet to organize her CDs. Those aren’t the sorts of things you’d put on a resume — but it instantly gave me a sense of who she was and how she might approach the job. (And I needed an obsessive organizer in that job, so it was hugely effective, and we actually ended up hiring her.) That’s a perfect example of a how a cover letter can flesh you out and explain why you’d be a great fit for the job by addign something new and not just relying on summarizing what’s already on your resume (which is the number one mistake I see with cover letters).

Another way to explain it to your student: Think about what you might say to a friend in explaining why you’re excited about a job and why you think you’d be great at it. Does that explanation add anything that your friend couldn’t get from just looking at your resume? It probably does — and that’s what you want to convey in your cover letter too.

This entry was posted in HR, Leadership. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.