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Two Ways Your Cover Letter Can Kill Your Career

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Cover letters are debatable. Many people think that they are no longer necessary, while others swear that they are an essential part of every job application. The fact is that both are right. There's a very good chance that nobody is ever going to read your cover letter, but not sending one can still hurt your chances of getting hired.

Here's the cover letter conundrum -- and two ways that many (if not most) job seekers are using them wrong.

Career killing move one: Assuming that your cover letter will be read

I know, I have written on this site (and others) how nobody reads cover letters anymore. And this is true. The majority of HR professionals and recruiters I have spoken with over the years say that they seldom if ever read cover letters.

In the days of mailing or faxing in your application for a job, it was natural to include a cover letter expressing your interest in the position and explaining how the accompanying resume makes you a good fit for it. Those letters were also generally read by the hiring manager.

Most people will naturally read a letter first when we open an envelope or an email.

But these days, most job postings receive hundreds of applications, and recruiters don't have time to read hundreds of letters. So they skip right to the resume. If the applicant seems to meet all of the qualifications and looks like a good fit for the role, they'll get put aside for a potential interview call. If the resume lists skills and experience that don't seem to match with the position, it will be quickly passed over.

In either case, that decision was made without ever looking at any accompanying cover letter.

Counting on your cover letter is shooting yourself in the foot.

The trouble with this is that many people created one perfected, generic resume that highlights their key career achievements, and they sent this to every job they applied for. They use their cover letter to express their interest in the specific job and to bridge the gap in any career shift from past jobs to the potential new one. The cover letter is the only part of the application that is tailored specifically to the targeted employer and expresses the candidate's knowledge and interest in that particular company.

So the busy employer with the competitive job to fill who doesn't read letters is only seeing your generic, untailored, possible irrelevant resume and not your eloquent introduction letter explaining how you'd be great for that role. Generic resumes are a dime a dozen and they get quickly tossed.

Counting on your cover letter is shooting yourself in the foot. Your resume itself has to be customized to every job you apply for -- highlighting your core credentials that are most relevant for that specific job.

Career killing move two: Not sending a cover letter at all

Here's the catch. Even though you can't count on anyone ever reading your cover letter, you still have to send one and it has to be good. Why? Because the potential employer might want to read it.

Some hiring managers still read the cover letters of candidates right away, while others will read just the cover letters of those candidates whose resumes they've shortlisted for further consideration.

Even though you can't count on anyone ever reading your cover letter, you still have to send one and it has to be good.

If you reach that step, do you really want to blow your chances by being the contender who put less effort into your application? It could give a negative impression of your work ethic if you're already cutting corners before you're even hired.

Case in point: I once received an email application for a job that I was hiring for. The email subject line was the job title, but the entire body of the email was just three words: "Please see attached". (The resume was attached.) That just comes across as lazy, which is not the first impression you want to make on a potential employer.

It only took three words for this particular cover letter (or lack thereof) to sink the candidate's chances of being hired. Give me a reason to open your attachment. Write me a short email about who you are and why I should be interested in your resume.

Knowing that your cover letter might not be read can make it difficult to put a lot of effort into crafting a good one, but you have to do it. If the employer does look for your cover letter, you're going to want it to be a stand out part of your professional application. It needs to introduce you and your interest in the role as well as why you'd be a great fit for it.

However, your resume has to do that too -- without simply repeating what's in the cover letter. Because while the resume has to stand alone, both documents might be read. And you don't want the employer to be reading the exact same message twice. (That comes across as robotic and repetitive.)

It's a bit of a drag, but here's the bottom line. You have to write a cover letter with every job application and it has to be good. But don't make the mistake of counting on anybody actually reading it.

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