Yes, you really do.
A lot of people don’t write cover letters, so you’ll stand out from the crowd when you put in the extra effort. In this economy, when you’re competing with so many other candidates, that’s important. It’s also your opportunity to explain why you’re interested in this position, and relate your experience to the company’s need. I always read the cover letter before the resume, because it gives me a sense of whether the candidate is literate or not. A lot of people have someone else do their resume for them, but a cover letter (a good one, anyway) is a little bit harder to fake. Some people send fabulous resumes with cover letters that are so riddled with grammatical and spelling errors that it’s hard to understand what they’re saying. You don’t have to be Shakespeare, but you do have to be able to form a sentence.
Formatting Your Submission
If you’re applying online, either through a job board or a company website, there’s usually a place to type in your cover letter. These don’t usually have spell-check, so you may want to compose it in another application that does (like Outlook or Word) and then copy-and-paste it into the window. Be sure you have no formatting (bullets, bold, underlining, etc.) when you do this, because it’ll get all goofed up in translation.
If you’re applying via email, your cover letter should go in the body of the email, not as an attachment. When a recruiter is receiving hundreds of submissions, she doesn’t want to have to painstakingly open each one of your multiple attachments–so if your cover letter isn’t in the body of the email, it might not be viewed at all. It’s much faster to read the letter right there in the body of the email, and then open the resume. Cutting down on the number of attachments also helps prevent older ISPs from unnecessarily ZIPing your files, which is a whole other level of annoyance to recruiters.
Often you’ll see an ad that tells you to put a code or word in the subject line. I always use this technique when I run ads, because it allows me to have Outlook automatically sort them into the right folder so that I can review them. It also helps prevent my spam filter from eating them. You would be amazed, though, at how many people can’t follow simple directions like, “Make sure your email’s subject line says, “MKE-HRDIR.” They put extra spaces or punctuation in the code, or they misspell the code, or they use a subject line they like better, or they leave the subject line blank. Guess what? I don’t see their submissions in many cases, because they didn’t go into the right folder. Even if I do see them, the very first thing the candidate has told me is that he can’t follow directions. That doesn’t make a good first impression. If there are directions in the ad on what to put in the subject line, follow them to the letter. If there aren’t, use the title of the position you’re applying for (e.g. “HR Coordinator Opportunity”), so they know where to route it. Don’t get too cute here, because if you use something like, “I’m the best candidate ever! Hire me!” the spam filter might eat your email.
Addressing the Letter
If you don’t know the name of the recipient, it’s fine to send it to “Dear Sir or Madam.” Make sure the last word is “Madam” and not “Madame,” though, because “madame” is someone who owns a whorehouse (don’t laugh, it happens all the time). Your spell-check won’t know the difference, so watch what you’re typing. NEVER send your letter to “Dear Sir,” unless you have traveled back in time and are writing from, like, 1912 or something.
If you DO know the name of the person you’re sending it to, by all means, use it. This can be tricky, though, if you can’t figure out the gender. If the first name is one whose gender you can’t tell (like mine), it’s fine to say “Dear Mr./Ms. Smith.” Trust me, those of us with gender-neutral first names will understand.
Next, we’ll talk about the contents of the cover letter itself.