WorkWise: Cover letters – an endangered species?

Mildred L. Culp

Technology has influenced the job-hunting process in many ways. Are online applications making cover letters obsolete?

‘Defining Factor’

Katherine Ebner, senior vice president of Organizational Effectiveness and Development at Kaiser Associates in Washington, D.C., doesn’t think so. “For me it’s a defining factor for an application … the candidate’s opportunity to stand out, even more than the resume.”

Ebner has reviewed thousands of cover letters from senior executives seeking employment at her global strategy management consulting firm. “Professional services companies want to see the quality of the work that will be presented to the client,” she says. “The ability to write a strong cover letter is an indication that person can present himself in a successful, relevant and interesting way. Cover letters are also important in any sales or marketing position.”

Some generalists take a different view. The virtual company of Marcia Merrill L.L.P. assists clients nationally and internationally in developing cover letters. Like Ebner, Merrill has reviewed thousands of them. She concedes that e-mailing, in particular, is diminishing the impact of a cover letter, because online applications usually require only a completed application form. In addition, companies often don’t require them for internal applications. She indicates that technical positions requiring a faxed resume may not need a cover letter either.

However, Merrill mentions that a job requiring a person to write definitely needs a cover letter as a sample. “A cover letter shows how you write and communicate,” she states. “It’s an introduction to your resume. It’s more in-depth, discussing what you can do for an employer and how your past experience would make you an asset.”

Lou LaMorte, director of Career Services at La Salle University in Philadelphia, also brings a generalist’s perspective. He received about 300 cover letters from students seeking internships and co-op assignments in a previous position at La Salle. The only situation he says that really doesn’t require a cover letter is a job fair, “where the cover letter is verbal.”

Otherwise, “it’s the enticement to read a little further, to take a closer look at the resume,” he explains. Like Merrill, he maintains that “it demonstrates the ability to organize and communicate. A cover letter is fairly influential in bringing a person in for the interview.”

Standout Cover Letters

What makes a cover letter stand out? Ebner’s favorite was “short, lively, engaging and confident. The person came to life and demonstrated his intelligence and fit. It made me want to read the resume and get to know him,” she recalls. “It consisted of four paragraphs using simple, clear language, speaking to the reader as another human being. There was no job seeking rhetoric.”

A “different” cover letter back in the mid-1990s was the best one LaMorte has ever seen. The person submitted an attractive, creative letter that included a column down the right side listing and describing her skills. (He points out that these skills probably varied, depending upon the position.) She landed the job.

Merrill recalls someone in her office receiving a cover letter “stating that the writer, a teacher changing careers, had pizzazz.” She backed up her statement with self-confidence, subsequently demonstrating that she was an effective communicator for the next 15 years. She retired at 75.

If you’re seeking a consulting, advertising or other creative position, be certain to write one with impact. Make it seem as if you’re speaking with the person, not shoving words at the reader.

Attach it to your resume and send it. Keep the campaign moving forward by following up. The most wonderful cover letter might not generate a call at all. A run-of-the-mill cover letter might not either. Make certain that you’re running the campaign. After all, it’s yours.

Dr. Mildred Culp, an award-winning journalist, also writes two syndicated columns -- WorkWise Interactive, on youth employment, and the classic WorkWise, on emerging workplace trends. Contact her at 708-672-1300 or Copyright 2007 Passage Media.