The Great Cover Letter Myth: Why Your Cover Letter Can’t Always Save You

I’ve been taking some career coaching classes lately. (Fear not. I promise not to jeopardize my non-expert status too much.)  Anyway…while we were talking about resumes, one of the people in my class asked “Do resumes really matter? It’s all in the cover letter.”

After I got up off the floor and brushed myself off…oh the horror…I tried to explain why cover letters, while indeed a powerful job search tool,  can’t be expected to bear so much of the burden.

Why a resume still matters even with a GREAT cover letter

Let me be clear.  When done right, cover letters can undo a great deal of the harm done by so-so resumes. But not in every case – and certainly not reliably enough to give your cover letter  so much responsibility for whether or not you get a job interview!

The situation we were talking about in class was one of a woman – let’s call her Joan – who for several reasons  decided to return to work in her early 50s after three years of semi-retirement from a rather successful career. (She still continued her volunteer work.) Her resume is filled with top-level positions, both in the private and non-profit sectors. Senior Vice President, CEO, Board Trustee, Executive Director, etc.

But what Joan wants now is to change her brand and find less-demanding but still fulfilling work in an organization she cares about. And she needs someone to be willing to give her that chance.

The Great Cover Letter Myth

The Great Cover Letter Myth tells Joan to just take her regular old resume (maybe slightly revised) and write a great cover letter explaining why she wants to contribute her skills in a different way now. And truth is she might hit that one person who reads it and takes the time to really see why she might be terrific at handling this particular job.

But not every resume screener is good at seeing beyond the details or has the inclination to do so. Also, it says something about Joan if she doesn’t even take the time to help paint the picture for the resume screener –  or if she doesn’t even realize why that may be a good thing to do. And anyway…why leave it up to luck or the kindness of strangers? Doesn’t it make more sense to help potential employers connect the dots?

Without doubt, Joan does need a strong cover letter. (In fact everyone should have one that they then tailor to each job.) But she also will greatly increase her chances if she reworks her resume using some or all of these suggestions:

  • Lead with a summary section emphasizing transferable skills (like problem solving or grant writing)
  • Visually de-emphasize titles
  • Carefully highlight accomplishments within each job (as best as possible) in a way that paints the picture of someone ideally suited for the new job
  • Consider a skills-based resume where the titles are even further de-emphasized

Of course, she’ll still meet with resistance. Some employers are afraid of people who they see as “over-qualified”.  But whatever you do, you don’t want to add to that perception in any way.  Joan’s most important job now is to help potential employers see her as “rightly qualified”.  And if she’s smart, she’ll make sure her resume – along with her cover letter, her personality, and lots of creative networking – helps people see her that way.

Do you have more suggestions for Joan?

Some additional Work Coach Cafe posts that might help:

What Is a Career Story & How Can It Help You Find Your New Job

How Your Lead-off Batters Make or Break Your Resume Brand

7 Resume Landmines That Can Blow Up AFTER an Interview

How to Handle Annoying Red Flags in Your Resume

When It Comes to Resumes…Sweat the Small Stuff!

How a New Resume Got Her the Job Interview!

10 Things I Look for When I Screen Resumes & Cover Letters

My Number 1 Cover Letter Tip

Who the Heck is Screening Your Resume?

Are You Getting Screwed By Your Professional Resume Writer?

I Keep Trying But My Resume Doesn’t Get Me Any Jobs!

More Resume Help…

=> Browse the Career Dictionary <=


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Excellent advice, Ronnie Ann. I totally agree with all you’ve said in this post.

  2. Steve Robins says:

    Great post! Cover letters originated in a simpler time many years ago, when there were fewer applicants for each job and when resumes were expensive to typeset. I.e., you had to write a great cover letter because it was too expensive and time-consuming to re-typeset the resume for each job.

    But today’s hiring environment is totally different: recruiters, HR folks, and hiring managers are busier than ever. So they often skip the cover letter entirely, looking only at the resume. What’s more, it’s so easy to tailor the resume (highlighting relevant skills and accomplishments) that prospective employers will expect that it’s tailored to the specific job. so it’s wise to spend time tailoring the resume.

    Once you’ve tailored the resume, take a few minutes to write a solid cover letter that matches your skills to the company’s specific requirements. The “T” letter is ideal – just create a table with 2 columns and fill it in: “Your requirements” and “My skills and experience.”

    Good luck!

  3. You’re right about tailoring your resume to reflect the specific job—or in Joan’s case, a shift in employment goals. You’re also right that a strong cover letter is still needed. I work in a creative field and the cover letter is where you can let your personality come through, important in this area. But even in non-creative fields, the cover letter is where you can blatantly “ask for the order”—let the reader know you really want the job and why you’d be so darned good at it. It’s the place where you can be more business-conversational and less stats-driven. To me, the successful resume tells potential employers you’re qualified for the job. The successful cover letter should make them want to meet you.

  4. I think you’re definitely right, though the cover letter in Joan’s case is just as important. Meanwhile, for an entry-level position, the cover letter means much less than the resume itself.

  5. Thanks for all the lovely comments and good advice. I do have the smartest readers, don’t I?

    And good reminder Steve – years ago we had to retype entire documents (yes…this is true my younger readers), but now there’s no excuse for not tweaking a doc to match the job!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  6. Right on, R.A.! The resume is only one part of what should be a job seeker’s 1-2 punch. The other is a cover letter that supports the resume and tries to “marry” the skills and qualifications with the company’s needs.

  7. Thanks Rick! Nice to see you and right on right back to ya.

    Hope all is well with you and the gang at Pongo! Will drop by soon to say hello.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

  8. Tim Carriere says:

    Interestingly I have never gotten a position for which I had to write a cover letter for, all my jobs were either through head hunters or networking. In fact I’ve experienced the the situation that the more effort I put into a cover letter, the less likely I will get an interview.

    I do have several resumes each targeted for different positions I can fill.

  9. Hi Tim!

    Good to see all sides of this. No one company dances to the same cover letter tune. But some companies really do care – often depending on industry and job type.

    You’re point is well made that sometimes too much effort that SHOWS can make your cover letter work against you. Cover letters that work best are usually short and to the point showing where you match their needs but not overselling. But then again – there are even exceptions to that!

    Smart about the resumes. Best of luck!

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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