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In praise of the cover letter

Cover letters are a must when applying for a job — just don’t be ‘that Wall Street guy’

By Todd Humber

I’ve never understood why jobseekers don’t write cover letters.

As a hiring manager, the lack of a cover letter screams out, “I couldn’t be bothered to learn about this position. It’s not important enough to me to sit down and compose something. Fingers crossed that you hire me.”

It’s a terrible job-hunting strategy. Unless you’re being aggressively headhunted, it’s almost impossible to make the short list without a cover letter that briefly states why you think you’re suitable for the job, why you want to work for the company and that shows you at least have some understanding of its business.

I’ve never bothered to interview someone who didn’t submit a cover letter. Which, frankly, eliminates about one-half of the applications that come through our applicant tracking system.

Most hiring managers agree. A new survey from Office Team found 78 per cent of 300 senior managers thought a cover letter was either very or somewhat valuable. So only about two in 10 senior managers aren’t interested in a cover letter — not good odds for a jobseeker.

But there’s actually something arguably worse than no cover letter. When I was in journalism school, we were taught the old adage “the only thing worse than no art to accompany a story is bad art.” The same holds true for cover letters.

I hire editors. A spelling mistake or a typo in a resumé or cover letter almost automatically excludes a candidate. It may seem harsh, but when you’re applying for a job where words and grammar are king, a typo in an application isn’t exactly putting your best foot forward.

Hubris, also, should be avoided.

Just ask Mark.

Mark, a student at New York University, became the laughingstock of Wall Street after his cover letter went viral.

He wrote:

"I am unequivocally the most unflaggingly hard worker I know, and I love self-improvement. I have always felt that my time should be spent wisely, so I continuously challenge myself ... I decided to redouble my effort by placing out of two classes, taking two honors classes, and holding two part-time jobs. That semester I achieved a 3.93, and in the same time I managed to bench double my bodyweight and do 35 pull-ups."

On Feb. 2, a Bank of America Merrill Lynch director forwarded to colleagues and said, “Drinks on me for the first analyst to concisely summarize everything that is wrong with this.”

One can certainly question the professionalism of forwarding someone’s cover letter as a joke, but it sparked a firestorm. It spread like wildfire across Wall Street — with comments like “hilarious,” “winning,” and “NYU builds ROCKSTARS” — before going viral online.

The attention may well work in Mark’s favour in the end, but it underscores the point that, perhaps, the only thing worse than no cover letter is a badly written one.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at 

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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