I read this article the other day on LinkedIn Pulse about a hiring manager's claim that cover letters weigh more than resumes (hint: they do not). Reading the comments, there seemed to be a lot of mixed feedback on this topic. From a recruiters standpoint, cover letters are not helpful. So, the question is: should we, or should we not, provide a cover letter? Before you start stressing about writing one, here are my thoughts. 1) High technology industry approaches the job search a bit differently. Especially you are applying for an engineering related job, recruiters/hiring managers seldom read cover letters, and thus it is not helpful (so use your time doing something else). Instead, hiring managers and recruiters will resort more heavily on other things like a strong resume or strong LinkedIn profile (I sometimes don't even collect a candidate's formal resume because I can resort to their LinkedIn).
What about non-tech related jobs within the high-technology industry? If you are applying for something that requires strong writing/communications skills (like marketing, business development, or public relations), a strong cover letter could help further demonstrate your strengths. However, remember that a cover letter will not exactly "make" a decision on whether the company is interested in talking further; if written incorrectly, it could even break your chances. It also depends on the context of your industry.
2) No one has time to read a long cover letter. If you are sending in a cover letter that is more than 3 paragraphs in length, then you are doing it wrong. Hiring managers and recruiters simply don't have the time to read through an entire essay, so don't send it in, as it might even hurt your chances. Strong cover letters are brief and to the point; candidates must be explicit about who they are and what they are looking for, and give strong examples of why they are a fit. Strong cover letters (and good candidates) present information that is well organized and easy to find. I'll write a post on this later.
3) Don't ever send a cookie-cutter cover letter. Ever. The obvious reason is that cut and paste cover letters may overlook small details that the applicant might not see. You might be blasting off 10 cover letters a day, and though it seems efficient, you forget to change the name of the company. Oops. The maybe not-so-obvious reason of why a cookie-cutter cover letter is never a good idea is that every role is a bit different and needs to be tailored. The candidates that are able to able to identify the employer's wants/needs/pain points, and succinctly portray why they are a fit, will peak more interest. A candidate that can highlight why he/she is a good fit for this particular role and company is in a better position to be called back. Generic cookie cutter resumes usually do not capture that effect.
4) If you are spending too much time writing a cover letter, then it's not an efficient use of time. If you've been working on one cover letter for more than a couple hours (even days and/or weeks), then you are approaching it wrong. Your time is better spent on other methods, like networking, reaching out directly on LinkedIn, or connecting with people for informational interviews. The format for a cover letter is pretty standard, but what applicants usually struggle with is being able to tie the "why" into a short concise summary. If this is something holding you back in your job search, I suggest taking time off to reflect on your whole career image/trajectory/accomplishments/goals first. The better you are able to connect the dots, the better you can convey this value to others.
So, where do I stand? In short: if you are an engineer looking for an engineering role, then don't bother (but if you are an engineer looking to switch to something business-y, then write one). If you are in high-tech (i.e. Silicon Valley) but not in engineering, then it's up to your discretion, but it might not get read. If you are in a conservative industry where strong writing and communication skills are valued or a crucial part of the job, then sure, but make sure it's NOT longer than three paragraphs, a cookie cutter or that it took you more than 2 hours to write, because you could be being more efficient in other ways. If you don't want to write a formal cover letter, send out a similar format introduction email to the hiring manager or recruiter. Because what else are you going to write in your first introduction email?
As for this article, author Laura Nelson makes a few good points, but her argument is completely exaggerated. Let's be honest: if Laura had only one hour to get through 200 resumes, she's better off picking through resumes, looking for relevant skills, then reading the cover letter as a final clinger - not the other way around. No matter how much "personality" you inject, after reading 200 of them, they will all start to blur, sorry. Personality is important, but if a candidate lacks the wrong fundamental skills, then it simply isn't a good fit (unless you are looking for a purely entry level role).