Points of Contention: The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received

NOVEMBER 30, 2010 | BY MICAH

The Harvard Business Review writes a lot of articles about job searching. They often contain useful information, but as always there are a lot of topics that are useful for discussion. Last Year, David Silverman wrote an article entitled “The Best Cover Letter I Ever Received.” In it he talks about cover letters, their flaws, the way people write them and how to write a truly excellent cover letter. The article is well worth reading, but there were some specific points that are worthy of further discussion.

Thoughts on the Cover Letters

  • “Here’s my basic philosophy on them: don’t bother.”

Silverman suggests that you shouldn’t bother with the cover letter, because they usually suck. He’s right. Most cover letters do suck. Unfortunately, you don’t really have a choice. Employers expect you to send one. A lack of a cover letter makes it appear as though you were sloppy, and sending your resume every which way. When they expect cover letters (which they all do) and do not receive them, your application is already looked upon negatively. In addition, they really do have a variety of uses if you can make your cover letter good. So in reality, the issue is not “don’t write a cover letter.” The issue is “make your cover letter better.”

  • “The Form Letter”

Silverman’s form letter section is debatable. Not the phrase “If they’re lucky, I will still take the time to read their résumé after being insulted with a form letter.” What he is hinting at is that form letters are usually awful. Well, they are, but he may still read the resume, so clearly they are not without some merit. This is again a reason to emphasize the writing of unique and interesting cover letters. Again, the problem is not that you write a cover letter. The problem is that many of them are bad.

  • “There are really only a few times to use a cover letter”

This section is somewhat confusing, because his reasons are “When you know something about the job requirements” and “when you know the name of the person hiring.” Very, very few hiring managers expect a cover letter to be written to them specifically, yet Silverman appears to think that they are supposed to be. In addition, most people know at least something about the job requirements. Few people apply to a job that has nothing open but a title.

Overall Impressions

As usual, Silverman’s article is very useful and worth reading. He’s absolutely right about many of the problems with cover letters, and he is also right that a short and to the point cover letter is probably the best letter you can write, especially when it does not simply re-cap your resume. Still, advocating that cover letters should be avoided is an overstatement, because the mere fact that most hiring managers are expecting cover letters means you have to meet their minimum expectations to get a job. The key is not to forget cover letters. The key is to make them better.

Take Away Interview Tips

  • Write unique and interesting cover letters.
  • Keep them short.

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