What’s the deal with cover letters these days? Do you really need one?

I get this question from clients quite frequently. And I understand—most of us would rather NOT write a cover letter. It is confusing to figure out what should go on one, it’s easy to talk yourself out of it, and you aren’t sure if anyone is going to actually read it.

However, there are 2 times when I think you should absolutely write a cover letter:

  1. The application (especially online application) asks for one. This is also true if you are referred to a job and the person referring you asks for one. No exceptions — if this is in a job application, you should write one.
  2. If you are applying for a job where you’re not the traditional candidate. Many of my clients come to me for coaching because they are trying to make a career transition. If that’s the case for you, it likely means that you need to show the recruiter and hiring manager how your skills from another role or industry translate to the job you’re applying for. For candidates like this, the cover letter is actually a fantastic opportunity to tell your story and show how your skills are relevant.

If one of the criteria above is true for you and you need to write a cover letter… what next?

Here are my top guidelines for creating a successful cover letter (success here is defined as it doesn’t end up going in the trash unread).

Make It Personal

Address it to a person’s name if you have it. Makes it more personal, shows right from the beginning that you are not just using a form letter.

Make Your Case

Strike the balance between talking about why you want the job and making your case for why you’re a good fit for the job. Start with something short and specific about the company and role and why you’re interested in it. This is not the time to use generic language—get as specific as possible. If they suspect this is form language that is used on every job application, your letter is going straight into the trash.

Sell Yourself

One you’ve shown that you really, truly like them—sell yourself. Take some skills and experiences from your resume, and tell more of a story with them. The resume is so short it tends to only give the main highlights. You can use an example from your resume and expand on it to add more context about the challenges, specific actions you took and why, and what the outcomes were. This is a chance to explain your style and the way you approach things, so don’t worry about making everything quantified the way you would on a resume.

Make It Readable

Write in a more conversational tone. The old trick of reading it aloud to see how it sounds works here. Nobody wants to read a boring and formal letter, so don’t write one!

Emphasize Your Skills

If you are transitioning, explicitly address how your skills carry over. If you see the connection between what you’ve done in the past and your new role, but it’s not immediately evident from your titles, this is your chance to tell stories that create that bridge.

With these guidelines, your cover letter should clearly and explicitly sell your skills, your story, and encourage a company to hire you. While you may think you can skip the cover letter, be sure to check the conditions of the situation – more often than not, a cover letter is a fantastic opportunity you don’t want to miss out on.