One reason given for the cover letter’s decline: technology. An ever-growing number of companies were (and still are) adopting software (known as “Applicant Tracking Systems” or “ATS”) to automate their resume review process. (See the link to our earlier blog, "A Robot Wrecked My Resume" at the end of this post). The increased efficiency came with the limitation that many ATS programs could not read or interpret a cover letter. That was then, this is now.
As with technology in general, ATS solutions continue to rapidly evolve and this constant evolution makes for “survival of the fittest” in the current job market. Today, the job seekers who "survive" and win interviews are those who leverage the best practices that keep their covers letters (and resumes) effective. Not only are ATS solutions emerging which are able to read and interpret cover letters, but it remains true that many jobs are won through person-to-person networking...a human forum where crisp and clear cover letters still have a place and a purpose. Some tips to take advantage of the cover letter's "revival"…
Stick to the Purpose. A great resume effectively communicates to multiple employers what your skill set can do for them. A great cover letter supplements your resume and effectively communicates to a specific employer what your skill set can do for their specific job opening.
Don't Repeat Your Resume. This is perhaps the most common (and fatal) flaw of most cover letters. Take the time to analyze the job posting you are applying to, Select the most posting's important duties and qualifications then focus your cover letter on highlighting your experience and skills which meet those specific duties and qualifications.
Keep It Short. Let your resume be the document that communicates the more complete story of your value. For cover letters, PhoenixHR LLC recommends a 3-paragraph approach:
- Paragraph 1 - Introduce yourself with passion. Avoid "generic" and "template" cover letters; instead grab your reader's attention with your enthusiastic identification of why you want to work specifically for them. Look for some connection between you and the specific employer from sources such as reviewing their job posting and company website.
- Paragraph 2 - This is the key paragraph where you sell your unique value-add as tailored to the specific job opening, then refer them to the resume for further details.
- Paragraph 3 - A strong call-to-action closing paragraph where you suggest next-steps or (especially if networking) suggest a date and time for follow-up.
Think Like An ATS Robot. There are still many ATS systems that won't let you submit a cover letter. For those that do, remember that all ATS’ basically look for a match between your content and "keywords" which are usually taken from the job posting. All ATS’ also have rules on what formatting they can (and cannot) read…use the wrong format, and the ATS will scramble your data. To keep your cover letter ATS-format friendly, your all-important paragraph 2 should use a simple bullet-point structure (not tables!) similar to the following:
- Your Requirement: text. (This is where you quote the relevant language right out the job posting.)
- I Offer: text. (This is where you briefly state your value-add experience and/or skill that fulfills the requirement).
When read by an ATS, the above format creates an instant "keyword" match by giving their job posting's key requirements. When read by humans, this format quickly communicates the match between the posting’s qualifications and your unique skills and/or experience.
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