Many people think cover letters are optional.
The smartest freelancers know that writing a cover letter — even if it’s not asked for — brings with it a bushel of benefits.
For your prospective client, a letter shows that you’re a serious candidate; the extra effort is evidence of a robust work ethic.
For yourself, writing a letter helps you develop the elevator pitch you’ll need for an interview. After all, you’ll need these tailored talking points at some point; why not get a head start?
Similarly, a cover letter allows you to preempt questions that your résumé might raise. Do you lack a key requisite from the job description? Is most of your experience in a different industry?
None of these issues is a deal-breaker, but each calls for an explanation — if not now, later. A cover letter provides the perfect place to clarify and calm any potential concerns.
Here’s another benefit: Many job descriptions say they’re looking for someone with “strong communication skills.” Sure, you could reference your “strong communication skills.” Or you could validate this talent by showing it off. (For a peerless example, check out this 1934 letter from writer Robert Pirosh.)
In fact, a cover letter allows you to show off not only your skills, but your personality. Granted, some clients prefer a “just-the-facts” approach, but most people want to glimpse your character — to ascertain if you'll be easy to work with or if you'll have a hard time understanding each other — before they commit to working with you.
Recap Me Not
A common myth is that a cover letter simply recaps your résumé.
That’s what amateurs do.
True pros know that a cover letter frames your résumé. A cover letter establishes themes and conveys a narrative, giving the recruiter the big-picture facts about you, allowing them to focus on the specifics that separate you from the other 347 résumé pushers in their inbox.
It may be perfectly clear to you that you’re qualified for the job, but a cover letter helps you make that connection explicit, to identify how your experience lines up with the requirements.
As Uma Thurman put it in The Producers, “When you got it, flaunt it. Step right up and strut your stuff.”
The EAR Test
In reading a cover letter and résumé, every recruiter is asking three questions:
1. Are they passionate about the work?
2. Are they qualified?
3. Are they the best person for it?
I call this the “EAR” test — are you excited, able, and right?
While #2 (your aptitude) can be communicated in a résumé, #1 and #3 (your attitude) cannot.
And that, friends, is why you write a cover letter: To present the full picture of who you are.
Jonathan Rick is a freelance ghostwriter in Washington, D.C. He helps people brand themselves better, whether through a cover letter, elevator pitch, résumé, or LinkedIn profile. He’s available for individual consultations and group workshops.