The Vault team has written a lot about cover letters lately, from asking whether they are even necessary to giving tips on how to draft a good one. But I’ve been reviewing a good number of resumes and cover letters recently (because we’re hiring), and I’ve noticed a trend: job applicants don’t know what cover letters are even for. Although a cover letter can be a good way to show a little personality and to demonstrate your writing ability (an important quality for a writing/editing role), the best reason to include a cover letter is to highlight or explain things that aren’t obvious from just your resume. So with that in mind, here are the three biggest things that cover letters are good for.
1. To explain gaps in your employment history. In an economy that is still trying to pull itself out of a nearly decade-long slump, many job applicants, especially recent grads, are going to have a bit of a checkered job history. Layoffs, sabbaticals, extended travels, temporary jobs ending, and employment breaks for parenting—they are all perfectly normal activities, but they all show up as just temporal gaps on a resume. If you have any extended gaps in your recent work history that don’t have some obvious explanation (like you were in school for that period), you need to explain what was going on during that time period. Otherwise your prospective employer may just assume you were unemployed, sitting on your couch, watching Netflix for a year. This holds especially true if you currently unemployed. I recently received a resume that included no work history for the past four years and no cover letter explanation. There may be a perfectly good reason for that gap, but I don’t know what it is, so the resume doesn’t get a second look.
2. To match up your background with the job requirements. If your job history doesn’t match up perfectly and seamlessly with the job your applying to, the cover letter is your chance to connect the dots. This is especially true if you’ve just recently graduated, have had a lot of short-term jobs, or have worked in several different fields. Perhaps you developed skills while working as a barista or bartender that really prepare you for a sales job. Or maybe you took a class in a certain area in college that taught you about the field to which you are applying. It might not be obvious from your resume how that the job or class helped you prepare for the job you’re applying to now, so the cover letter is your chance to spell that out.
3. To explain a career shift. This is a bit of a corollary to #2. When your job history all points you in a certain direction, but you are trying to make a career shift, you should explain that. If your last three jobs were as a practicing lawyer, but now you want to become a writer, you should explain why you are trying to make this transition. If you don’t take the time to explain this pivot, the employer might just assume you’re desperate and applying to a job out of your career because you just need the income. Even if you’re super qualified for the job, if your resume looks like your interests lie elsewhere, an employer may assume you’ll leave as soon as you can find a job in your old field. Use your cover letter to explain why you’re interested in this new area and alleviate the fear of you jumping ship.
If your work history is gapless, if your skills and experience are obvious from your resume, and if the job you’re applying to is an obvious move for someone in your position, maybe you don’t need a cover letter. For the rest of us, the cover letter should tell the story that the resume doesn’t. Connect the dots, fill in the gaps, and explain the changes and you’re more likely to land the interview rather than have your application land in the recycling bin.
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