Do you really need a cover letter?

Many experts make the case that a concise, Many experts make the case that a concise, targeted cover letter has value. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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including a cover letter with your résumé is commonly considered a "golden rule" of job searching. But in this age of online applications and recruiters who need to scan material quickly, is this practice outdated?

Consider the following: For his book "Unbeatable Résumés: America's Top Recruiter Reveals What REALLY Gets You Hired," author Tony Beshara asked hiring authorities from a variety of disciplines the question "How important is a cover letter when you are receiving résumés?" Of the more than 3,000 respondents, 86 percent said "not very important."

So if only 14 percent of the people seeing your résumé consider a cover letter important, is it worth doing?

To send or not to send

"Unless the employer specifically requests a cover letter, I would recommend that candidates do not include one," says Jen Rallis, author of "Ugly Résumés Get Jobs." "Many recruiters only spend a few minutes scanning a résumé and disregard cover letters all together." Instead, she favors a well-written summary of qualifications specific to the position being applied to at the top of the résumé.

Many experts, however, make the case that a concise, targeted cover letter has value. "In a cover letter, you can precisely match your qualifications to job requirements and/or to the company to a degree that is difficult on a résumé," says Pennell Locey, senior consultant for Keystone Associates, a career management consulting firm headquartered in Boston. "Choose no more than five key points where you feel your qualifications directly make you a standout, and highlight the specifics of those in your letter. Bullet points rather than a narrative can make it easy for an employer to read."

"From a recruiting standpoint, I would likely look at a cover letter after reading someone's résumé," says Tracy Cashman, partner and general manager of the information technology division of Winter, Wyman -- one of the largest staffing firms in the Northeast. "I am more interested in examining a person's work experience and skills than reading the sometimes 'fluffy' nature of a cover letter." Still, she notes that a cover letter can be helpful, especially when it explains something that can't really be covered in the résumé itself, such as a gap in employment history or a position outside the person's obvious career track. Cashman's colleague Beverly Morgan -- a partner in Winter, Wyman's human resources division -- adds that a cover letter should mention anyone you know within the organization to build a personal connection.

Making the decision

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Obviously, if a job ad asks for a cover letter, one should be included because failure to do so looks like you aren't following directions. Likewise, the decision is already made when an online application only allows space for a résumé. For other cases, it is difficult to tell what role a cover letter may or may not play in the hiring process.

While a cover letter is typically placed before a résumé, Beshara's survey respondents frequently said that if they read a cover letter at all, they did so after examining the résumé. Thus, applicants may want to reconsider how they approach their material, realizing that their résumé must be the attention-grabber.

When an applicant does include a cover letter, Beshara stresses that it must be concise. "I can't tell you the number of résumés I receive with a full-page cover letter that will rarely, if ever, get read ...You have to make an impact quickly, with specifics that say 'You need to interview me.'"

Other tips Beshara has for job seekers who choose to send cover letters include:

· Having a phone conversation with the hiring authority beforehand and then referencing that call in the letter.

· Using bullet points to list accomplishments that apply to the specific job opening.

· Quantifying achievements using numbers, statistics and percentages.

· Focusing on what you can do for the company, not on your own needs.

Lastly, Beshara and others urge candidates to ditch any generic cover letters. "As a rule of thumb: If your cover letter could be true for any job/company you apply for, then it isn't targeted enough," Locey says. So if you've decided sending a cover letter is worth your time, do it right and let the reader know you wrote it just for him.

Beth Braccio Hering researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues for CareerBuilder. Follow @Careerbuilder on Twitter.

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