While the players in recruiting and hiring seem to be torn on the subject of whether an applicant should, or should not, submit a cover letter with their résumé across the internet -- the majority agree that a cover letter is still an important part of the application process. According to an article in The Washington Post, 75% of 100 employers polled said “a well-written cover letter can improve the odds of a less-qualified applicant obtaining an interview.”  With that clear of a preference, it would seem both an investment of time and energy into writing a strong cover letter is a top priority.
Okay, but why is a cover letter even important? Doesn’t my résumé cover all the bases?
First, let’s consider what a résumé consists of, and the structure of it. With this knowledge, we can understand where a cover letter comes into play. When compiling a résumé, though an intrinsic part of the application process, it inevitably follows a set of requirements that rarely deviate from the norm.
Every résumé is basically the same: you must list your employment history, education opportunities you have completed, and the pertinent skills you possess for the position you are applying for. While this is a great place to showcase yourself as a set of skills, this doesn’t leave much of an opportunity to show why you, the whole person, are the perfect candidate for the job at that company! It's time to introduce the hiring manager to your cover letter.
The seemingly limitless amount of information on the web regarding cover letters can be almost paralyzing at times. How do you parse through the mountains of websites and opinions? Let us help you with that, we can answer many of your questions and help you find a great jumping off point. Your time is valuable, using your resources wisely is imperative.
What should go into my cover letter?
How long do I even make this thing?
According to the Center for Career and Life Development at Saddleback College, 70% of the employers they polled wanted the cover letter to be a half a page or less.  Be cognizant of the fact that hiring managers are people too, and commonly receive numerous résumés for the same position, you don't want to overwhelm them even further with lengthy cover letters.
Do remove anything that isn’t necessary, and aim for no more than three paragraphs. Don't make these ten sentences long to get around this length suggestion, either. Sell yourself, show you can be an asset, and do it in a reasonably short span of time. If you can do this in five sentences, awesome, but that short of a cover letter is not imperative to make a good impression.
Throughout this process, be mindful of the fact that you are trying to get invited for an interview -- you can give additional information about yourself and your qualifications once you're face to face with the interviewer!
Research the company you want to work for!
According to a survey done in the book The 100 Best Companies to Work For, 91% of employers agree that
“an applicant who has done research on your company or the position they're applying for will receive greater consideration than those who send a generic cover letter”.
Brush up on those research skills, showing an interest in the company you are applying to can be greatly augmented by being able to speak to it’s purpose and culture, and can be a meaningful selling point. Also, make sure you convey an understanding of the needs of the job and expound on how you can fulfill those demands. Many employers are searching for a team member, they’d like to hire an individual that will fits into the already established group.
Put your best foot forward!
The cover letter is where you get to shine. You have the stage -- expand on the qualities that make you a stellar employee, something that isn't a regurgitation of your résumé, but elaborates on some of the elements you are most proud of from your job history. Use the achievements or skills you've obtained that could be useful for this company’s specific position. Of note, don’t be afraid to show what inspires you as an individual, motivated people tend to make motivated employees.
What can I do to avoid being completely passed over?
Choose the right words/phrasing!
You want to stand out as an individual, find ways to express yourself in a manner that doesn’t use buzzwords. It’s superfluous to repeat the same keywords an employer has read repeatedly when you can explain yourself in a more imaginative, innovative manner. Be aware of statements such as: “I'm a great team player, I am really creative and have outstanding problem solving skills.” Though these are likely true, find a way to showcase these talents by utilizing a short example or witty anecdote that illustrates these skills instead. Your achievements will speak for themselves, without the need for overused phrases.
Speaking of word choice, when you researched the company for your cover letter, you likely got a sense of culture at this workplace – try to keep that in mind when writing the cover letter itself. If the cover letter is too formal and stiff, but the company is upbeat and laid back, you might appear to be the wrong fit for the organization. On the other hand, if you use a conversational style of writing, but the company is one that requires more conventionality, you may come across as lacking the structure necessary to work in their environment.
Know what to do with the cover letter once it’s written!
Do you attach the cover letter to the same email you attach your résumé to? Many of us have had the same question and taken that route, only to be greeted with a wall of silence. What gives? How frustrating to not hear back from an employer after you've put in the effort to write a kick ass cover letter and résumé. According to the CCLD, 74% of the employers they surveyed wanted a strong, well-crafted cover letter as the body of the recruit’s email. 
We can extrapolate from the CCLD research the fact that the employer will have a much greater chance of seeing, and reading, your cover letter if you cut and paste it into the body of your email. If you take this approach, a hiring manager is more likely to at least skim through your work. If the person tasked with reading the résumés likes what they see in your résumé, they will often go back and read through the cover letter more thoroughly; where you’ll get the chance to shine.
Can you boil that all down for me?
- Make your personalized to that company cover letter the body of your email.
- Try to stick to a length of 1-3 paragraphs. Much longer and there's a chance they'll just move on.
- Show you have researched the job and the company; showcase that research in the way you present your skill-sets, motivation, and attitude.
- Don't use keywords as a selling point. Most hiring managers have seen the popular searchable keywords many times before.
- Do make sure you spend time to make a phenomenal résumé that encourages someone to go back and read your cover letter more thoroughly. These two components should work together, so make them both rock!
You can move forward with confidence knowing that a well finessed résumé, and complementary cover letter that piques interest in how awesome you are, is going to put you well ahead of the competition.
3 [^3] The 100 Best Companies to Work For. Plume. 1994