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The Accountant’s Definitive Guide to Cover Letters

Here we are again, folks. Today’s topic cover letters is a bit more ambiguous. Are they necessary? Do you take a risk? Should you send it as an attachment? Doesn’t my résumé speak for itself?

It’s true that the argument for and against cover letters will probably go on forever. Sure, they can be a necessary evil in your search for a new job. Here’s my thinking: if you’re going to use a generic cover letter, you’re wasting your time and that of the hiring manager; if you put some thought into your letter, it can land you the interview before they even review your résumé. 
Like my résumé breakdown last week, this is more of a guide than gospel to help you with your job search. I will focus both on formatting and on when to use a cover letter and when you’re better off avoiding them altogether. 
When to Submit a Cover Letter
The job description requires one to be sent 
“Please send your cover letter and résumé to XYZ” should be clear as a bright summer day to you, but from my experience it certainly is not. Pay attention to detail – if the employer asks for something you better provide it.
“Please submit your credentials” or some other vague word usage 
If the job description alludes to providing a formal cover letter, it is best to do so. 
The job is a stretch
A popular question I receive is how to best try and win over a hiring manager for a job that is out of your normal wheelhouse of skills. The cover letter provides you an opportunity to give specific details or examples as to why you are an excellent candidate for a role. Elevate your candidacy from a PDF file to a person that the hiring manager simply has to speak to learn more. 
That being said, do NOT be this guy. Not now; not ever. Everything in moderation, people.  
Your spouse/buddy/uncle’s barber wants to recommend you
It’s probable that many of you will successfully tap your own network to find a new job, and that’s great. Having a connection with a company is a great head start. That said, it is important not to take the connection for granted and just assume that you’ll land an interview. You do not necessarily know their standing in the company, what their relationship with HR is, or who else in the firm is recommending candidates. Seize the opportunity to leapfrog off of your connection to show that you are serious about the position and you’re not applying because you’ve heard they have a decent company softball team. Demonstrate that you have heard positive things about the company from your connection, and leverage these as to why you are interested in the opportunity. Explain what you bring to the table independent of your connection. 
When Not to Submit a Cover Letter
You are using a headhunter
They barely have time to return your call to give you an update that they have no update, so do not bother them with a cover letter. Cover letters need to be personalized and meticulously reviewed for grammar and spelling; time that an executive recruiter simply doesn’t have. Understand this: a good headhunter is your foot in the door; they pitch your candidacy to their clients and push for you the way you hope your cover would do for you. Trust me – a good recruiter’s pitch will crush your cover letter every time. 
You are told not to
Again, follow directions. If you are speaking with a hiring manager and they ask you to send your résumé to them, ask them if they would like a cover letter. Oftentimes if they are asking for your résumé they will tell you not to bother with the letter. 
What to Include In Your Cover Letter
Cover letters should be formatted like a formal letter because, well, they are a formal letter. Start with standard 1” margins, a clean font like Calibri, Verdana, or Arial around a size 11 or 12. Tweak things as necessary to keep your cover letter to one page. 
The Basics:
Your contact information 
Keep it consistent with what is listed on your résumé:
  • Name 
  • Address 
  • Phone Number
  • Email Address
Date of Submission 
The day you submit it. Shouldn't be difficult but it bears mention. 
Employer Contact Information
Include this information if you have it and are absolutely sure of it; see below for more information about this section:
  • Name of HR Contact
  • Title of HR Contact
  • Employer Name
  • Employer Address
  • If you know who you are submitting things to, use “Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name:”
  • If you do not know, use “To Whom It May Concern:”
  • Always use a colon. Commas are reserved for informal correspondence. 
Body — four must-have’s:
  • Introduction: Use the first paragraph to express your interest in a specific job title/position at a specific company. If someone is recommending you for the position, include the name of your contact and your association to them here as well. 
  • Sell yourself: The next few paragraphs should demonstrate two things: 1) why you are interested in the company and 2) why you are qualified for the position. It is crucial that you make these paragraphs personal – you need to stand out from the dozens of other candidates that are applying. Identify a few points in the job description that lend well to your background and provide short anecdotes from your current line of work that are applicable.  
  • Get personal: Nothing sucks more than reading a boring, thoughtless cover letter. Are you boring and thoughtless? I didn’t think so, so why would you give that impression? It’s likely that you do not know anything about the person reading your cover letter, but you should absolutely do research on the company. Understand the company’s culture, personality, and standing in the industry. Have they been family owned for 75 years? Talk about their family culture and longtime positive standing in the community. Are they a bunch of 20-something hipsters starting a business out of a renovated factory-turned-corporate-lofts? Reference their recent bike-share program and how that speaks your personal interest in corporate responsibility. Connecting with the reader will help them stop thinking of you as “a qualified candidate” and more as “someone that I could see working here and getting along with us.” Fit is everything in this job market, and your cover letter can be your first opportunity to showcase why you’re a perfect match.
  • Conclusion: Your last paragraph should reiterate your interest in the position and explain how the company can reach you to set up an interview. It is important to be optimistic in this paragraph: “I look forward to hearing from you regarding this opportunity.” Some people suggest stating here that you will follow up in a week’s time, but I think that is optional. If you are comfortable stating so, go right ahead. Otherwise, keep this section short and to the point.
Sign off:
Keep it simple – “Regards” is just fine. “Best wishes,” “Sincerely yours,” “Kind regards” etc. are too much for a formal letter like this.
How to sign the letter:
If you are mailing or faxing your information, print and sign. If not, typing your full name (same name on your résumé) will suffice. 
DOs and DO NOTs
  • DO send a cover letter whenever possible. 
  • DO NOT send a cover letter just copied and pasted into an email (see below).
  • DO NOT send a cover letter as a separate attachment.
  • DO take two minutes combine your résumé and cover letter into one PDF file. Call the file your name and nothing ridiculously long like “Jon Lithstein – Cover Letter and Resume for Johnson & Johnson VP of Finance May 2013.pdf”
  • DO NOT go over a page for your cover letter. Yes, it is important to provide details about yourself, but no one is looking for the first chapter to your autobiography.
  • DO proofread. I’ve seen some workpapers with grammar on par with that of a 7th grader. Just like with your résumé, have someone else review it for mistakes. 
Q: Do I paste my cover letter into the body of my email?
A: No. A cover letter is a formal letter, and as common as email is in our lives today it is still considered an informal messaging system. 
Q: What should I say in my email?
A: Your email should be brief. Introduce yourself, reference the position you are applying for, and include your contact information. Example:
Q: Why should I combine by cover letter and résumé?
A: You need to remember that you are a fish in the sea of many. If the HR rep is sorting through 200 emails, that’s 200+ attachments they need to open and print. If you are email #173 in line, there’s a chance they skip over the separate cover letter attachment and just print your resume. By combining your two files into one you increase the probability of your cover letter being printed and read by the HR team. There is no perfect science to having your cover letter make it to the HR manager’s desk, but this will certainly help its chances.
Remember: A cover letter is the subtext to your résumé; your résumé needs to be able to stand alone on itself. If your cover letter is given a look, it needs to deliver new information and bring some color to you as a person. 
What has worked for you? Share your thoughts/successes/bloody failures in the comments.