Are cover letters still an important part of hunting for employment?  Or does nobody bother reading them anymore?

Like most questions related to the modern employment scene, you’ll find passionate arguments on both sides.  For example, within 15 seconds of poking around on Google, I was able to turn up the article here where an expert  advises that cover letters continue to be a critically important part of finding work — and then another article, here, citing the exact opposite opinion from a veteran recruiter.  Keep searching, and you’ll find dozens of additional articles straddling the fence (such as the ones here, here, here, and here) and suggesting that the truth of the matter, like most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle.

My own opinion on the subject?  In general, I believe job candidates should still submit a cover letter any time they apply to a job, unless a) the job advertisement expressly indicates otherwise; or b) you’re applying through a personal friend where such a letter would be erroneous or unnecessary.  Done properly, including a cover letter with any job application can only help your chances, especially if the hiring manager in question is one of the “quiet minority” who continue to highly value such submissions.

At the same time, however, you don’t want to go crazy and spend hours on this step of the process.  In fact, I’d advise against spending more than 10-15 minutes, on average, working on any individual letter.  Given that a great many employers surveyed indicate that they DON’T bother reading cover letters anymore, you don’t want to be channeling huge chunks of time into this aspect of your search, knowing that the “masterpiece” you spent the whole morning crafting might not even see the light of day!

Why do so many employers apparently ignore cover letters these days?  They claim that they simply don’t have the time, don’t want to deal with the extra attachments, or that such letters rarely add value, given that most job hunters merely end up spouting worthless generalities or rehashing all the exact same information that’s already on their resume.

So let’s give these readers a break.  Or better yet, wake them up a bit.  In the case of most hiring situations, I’d encourage you to take a “less is more” approach and draft a much shorter letter than you’re probably used to submitting, perhaps only 2-3 quick paragraphs in length, centered around one extremely thoughtful, relevant, and/or interesting point you want to share regarding the job lead or organization in question.

For example, as opposed to just dumping in a laundry list of your qualifications or gushing about how this opportunity is your “dream job” or a “perfect fit” with your credentials, get more creative.  Zig while others zag.  Set yourself apart with a pithy statement about the company’s business model, their reputation, a relevant project you’ve completed, or an observation about their job requirements that demonstrates you really know your stuff.

Perhaps something like:

“While my enclosed resume will walk you through the bulk of my qualifications, and how they stack up to your requirements, what really caught my eye about your advertisement was the emphasis you placed on finding somebody with an entrepreneurial mindset.  As my references will attest, I’ve been a self-starter my entire career and couldn’t agree more that this quality is essential to success in today’s workplace.  Nothing drags a project down faster, in my experience, than a team member who is complacent, can’t keep up, and/or tends to require a massive amount of handholding.  So in terms of the ‘fit’ issue with your organization, I can assure you that this item, in particular, really struck a chord with me.”

Worthy of Shakespeare?  By no means.  And this would just be the “guts” of such a note — you’d still want to start the letter with a short paragraph mentioning the job you’re applying for and close it with a paragraph thanking them for the time.  But at least the middle part of your message would have a spark of personality to it, show some reading comprehension skills, and stand out from a stack of 50 other generic documents that all play things totally safe!