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7 Answers to the Most Commonly Asked Cover Letter Questions

cover letter

From the questions about cover letters that my clients ask, it seems these apparently ordinary documents are actually mythical objects—how are they crafted? What are they for? Do job seekers really need them? Are they ever read? What is the cover letter’s relationship to the resume?

And judging by the frequency of these questions, and overall confusion they cause, I’m going to assume people can’t seem to get straight answers!

In this post, I’ll answer these questions to set the record:

How important are cover letters (and do I need one)?

The importance of cover letter depends on any number of factors—hiring manager, company, and industry. That being said, you should always have one on hand if it is requested, not only because some employers are interested but also to prove that you can follow directions and submit one when asked.

Do employers really read cover letters?

Yes, and no. But it isn’t the right thing to dwell on. Instead, focus on the letter itself—making sure it speaks to your value add, and that a quick glance would compel someone to keep reading. It is safe to say that people who read cover letters really do care and the letter will make a difference. So we always recommend sending one if you have the opportunity.

How do we write cover letters? And what should they include?

First, a few basics: starting from the top, the contact information of the recipient comes first. Be sure to address your letter to an actual person—the hiring manager, hopefully, not a generic title and, please, never “to whom it may concern.”

Second, as an example of the lay-out, one classic cover letter format is as follows:

  • Initial paragraph to introduce yourself and declare that you are applying for a given job.
  • Three body paragraphs which walk your reader through your relevant achievements and about why you are right for the position.
  • A conclusion, summing up your points and thanking the reader for his/her time and consideration.

What is the relationship between cover letter and resume?

A good cover letter and a good resume have more in common than not. Both address what makes you different, better, and, most importantly, ideal for a specific role. Both are succinct (no waste or platitudes), but thorough and specific (no half-framed examples or generalizations). And they ultimately tell the same story. The primary difference is that a cover letter is a narrative, whereas a resume is a series of lists. The only other marked difference is that a cover letter gives you latitude to explain unique situations; the gap in your work history or a non-standard career path, in greater detail than on a resume.

The cover letter is about you, right?

Actually, wrong, at least essentially. The cover letter, like the resume is about how you constitute an ideal candidate for the particular needs of this specific employer. Think of it as a sales pitch in which you accommodate your experience and value add to what employers need. You must assure your readers that you can solve their particular problem.

How does crafting a cover letter benefit you?

An effective cover letter will not only help you get through the door for conversations, but is also good practice because, if written well, it will bring out the stories of successes you’ll need to draw upon during the interview. The process of building one stretches you to explain yourself, laying out links between past contributions and future successes you would have thought obvious before.

What is the best way to use a cover letter?

Use it to take your story a level deeper. As you already know, a good resume and cover letter essentially make the same pitch. But an extraordinary cover letter manages to stay within the 1-page length while still delving even deeper into your story than your resume, allowing your readers to go beyond first impressions to the point of already knowing you. Now, after this, it isn’t you who need to meet them, but they who need to meet you.

About the Author

Lilly-Marie Lamar is a career advisor for Ivy Exec. She provided career advice to college students and professionals in the U.S. and abroad, and was a Fulbright scholar. Lilly-Marie has a degree in education from Columbia University.