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Job hunting: The real value of a cover letter

(MoneyWatch) As a hiring manager, I'm often distressed by the quality of the submissions I receive. It's not necessarily that the candidates themselves are unqualified. That might be, but often I don't really get a chance to find out because the quality of their job application is so low.

I've written extensively about the things you can do to put your best foot forward on your resume. Certainly, the resume needs to look good: Be spell checked, accurate, error-free, and presented in short, bulleted statements that emphasize your value and accomplishments as if you were speaking to someone with the attention span of a gnat.

One trend I'm seeing, though, which I don't like at all, is the absence of a cover letter. If you don't send me a cover letter, you're unlikely to get an opportunity to interview for any position that I'm hiring against.

The cover letter is critical. It's your opportunity to synthesize all the skills and accomplishments you have scattered across your two-page resume and summarize it for me in the context of the job opening you're applying for. And that, in a nutshell, is what the cover letter is all about: It's your chance to tell me in a paragraph -- two, tops -- why I should hire you.

That means the cover letter is not a place for aphorisms or platitudes. It's not somewhere for filler phrases like "team player" or "can-do attitude." Leave all that stuff on the cutting-room floor, and focus quickly on which of your skills and accomplishments make you a great candidate for the position you're applying for.

I suspect that cover letters are falling out of style among some job hunters because they're seen as old-fashioned redundancies that reflect an increasingly obsolete business formality. But I'm here to tell you that cover letters aren't about a Downton Abbey-style of old-world formality, nor should they just reiterate the resume. When done right, a cover letter should be short, punchy, and succinctly summarize your suitability for the role. It should make me eagerly flip ahead to your resume so I can see if you really are as good of a fit for my position as your cover letter suggests.

Without a cover letter -- or with a cover letter than misses the point -- I might never get to your resume at all.

Photo courtesy Flickr user Tax Credits

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