I never understood why hiring managers in North America insisted on requesting cover letters. When I recruited interns and employees in Toronto, I found the cover letters to be generic and boring, and I rarely ever read them…
At the beginning, before I added “please do not send a cover letter” to my job listings, I did get quite a few of them. Below are my two cents on the subject.
When I get a cover letter, I skim it for two seconds – and only if it is in the body of the email. If it is an attachment, I rarely open it at all. When I skim through a cover letter, this is what I look for:
- The name of the hiring company. In the first half second, my eyes are looking for the name of my company. If it’s not there, I am not going to read the rest of the cover letter or any of the other application materials. I will assume it’s a generic cover letter and that the applicant randomly sends hundreds of job applications.
- If the name of the company is there, I still want to make sure that the applicant didn’t just insert the company name in an otherwise generic cover letter. I look for words that strongly characterize the company or industry I’m hiring for. For example, when I hired for INcubes, a startup accelerator, I was looking for words like “entrepreneur,” “startup,” “innovation,” and “tech hub.” If none of these was present, just generic stuff like “my skills can contribute to the company,” etc., I ignored the application.
- If both of the above are present, I will next look to see what the applicant can do for the company. If I’m hiring you to run events, I want to see stuff in the cover letter that implies you would be awesome at running events. Specifically, I look for the word “events.” So put it right in the beginning. If you don’t, you run the risk that I will miss it because I will not read the cover letter until the end.
- Show me what you can do. Are you claiming to have experience with WordPress? Great, include some links to WordPress sites you’ve been in charge of. Are you a social media guru? Great, include links to social media accounts that you’ve run. Are you trying to convince me that you are a gifted writer who can create awesome content for us? Include some writing samples or links to your published blog posts or articles. Are you a designer? Include a link to your portfolio.
Case study (or: how to screw up a cover letter)
In April 2014, I was looking to hire a design intern for INcubes. I wasn’t looking for a top-notch super-experienced designer, just someone who had an eye for visual design and knew how to work the tools to make things look neat.
A coworker suggested one of his friends for the job, and I told him to give his friend my email address so he could apply directly. I received about 40 applications by email. One of them was from my co-worker’s friend, but I didn’t know which one it was.
When I opened one of the emails, I saw a long cover letter, over 400 words in length. I skimmed briefly over the first paragraph. I saw the words, “commerce student,” “finance,” “finance” again, “commerce,” and “financial analysis.” I didn’t read further; I just assumed that this person had sent me a resume by mistake while looking for a finance job. I replied to the person that his qualifications did not match the job requirements.
I ended up hiring someone else for the position, a commerce student with a passion for design, who had sent me a sample of a website she designed. Even though she had no formal design training, she turned out to be a great designer and a great hire.
A couple of days after I made my hiring decision, my co-worker told me that his friend, whom he considered a skilled designer, got a rejection email from me. I was surprised and looked for the email. It was the commerce student, the financial analyst. Going over his cover letter again, I saw that he did include some information about his design experience, but I completely missed it; I got distracted by all the irrelevant finance related information he included.
The lesson in this case is clear: write less, and get to the point. And if applying for a design position, make sure that the first paragraph in the cover letter is about design. Don’t write general stuff that the hiring manager doesn’t care about. I know firsthand that most managers hiring for “in demand” positions has even less patience than I have 🙂