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Want to get the job? Ditch the cover letter

By David Silverman, Special to CNN
  • David Silverman says the cover letter is a useless waste of time
  • Most cover letters are redundant and say "nothing at all," he argues
  • Instead, job seekers should focus more on networking, thank you notes and their resume

Editor's note: David Silverman has been an entrepreneur, an executive at several Fortune 100 companies and a college professor. He has blogged for Harvard Business Review and his last book is "Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars."

(CNN) -- Like Don Draper's desk typewriter and three martini lunches, the resume cover letter is a thing of the past. As someone who has hired dozens of white-collar applicants, I assure you that not only does writing one get you nothing extra; it's just as likely to reduce your chances of getting hired.

Here's a list of what's wrong with cover letters:

A typical ad gets at least 50 resumes in response, and easily can generate more than a hundred. The cover letter is designed to reduce time reading resumes by highlighting the really important things. But it's much easier for me to scan through the structured format of a well-designed resume than read paragraphs of text. So the cover letter just wastes my time.

Worse yet, the majority of cover letters are simply a redundant, but not complete, copy of your job history. There's only so much time I can spend per resume so the cover letter is siphoning away my attention from your full resume. And while maybe you were lucky enough to identify the thing I'm most looking for in your cover letter, chances of highlighting your connection with the job are better if you direct me to concentrate on your resume.

The cover letter is just another opportunity to make a mistake, no matter how trivial, that gets you rejected before anyone even looks at your resume.
--David Silverman

All the advice also tells you to "customize your cover letter for the job." But honestly, what do you know about the job that every other applicant doesn't also know? Do you know if I'm an avid fisherman or am allergic to trout? Does that make it more or less relevant for you to call out your hobbies in your cover letter? And if you have nothing personal and direct to tell me, all you are capable of stating in your cover letter is that you really "excel in a team-driven corporate environment," which is truly saying nothing at all.

And here's the kicker, the secret about the hiring process that will hopefully convince you to abandon the cover letter -- the main task when reading resumes is looking for reasons to discard them. It would be a wonderful world if we could interview 150 people for every opening, but no one can. And since most interviews are a group process, bringing in someone who isn't right will waste several co-workers' time. And who wants to be responsible for that?

Sorting through the pile means identifying anything that will help winnow the candidate list down. Does your resume have gaps? Out. Do you live more than a hundred miles from the office? Out. Are your dashes between dates different widths? Out. The cover letter is just another opportunity to make a mistake, no matter how trivial, that gets you rejected before anyone even looks at your resume.

Here are the three things you should be doing instead of trying to craft a useless cover letter.

• Network. Whatever the strength of your resume, you will ultimately be hired by a flesh and blood person. Getting referred to that person by a friend or respected colleague is immeasurably better than any document you can provide. Use LinkedIn, Facebook, e-mail and good old fashioned meeting people to maintain and build your professional network. When you're looking for a job, you will be way ahead of the hoi polloi who've got no one to recommend them.

• Thank you notes. If you do land the interview, it's the thank you note afterwards that makes you stand out from the other candidates. As amazing as it might sound, most people neglect this step. For whatever reason they feel that it's inappropriate to send a follow up after an interview. Maybe they think they are being respectful of the process, but what the interviewer thinks is, "Hey, they just wanted a job, any job, they didn't want this job." A great thank you that shows that you'd really like to work in my company. You don't have to sell yourself in the thank you, just be sure to show you understood what the job was about. And be sure to e-mail everyone you meet, not just the most senior people. (Also be sure to get the e-mail address of everyone you meet, otherwise you won't be contacting anyone.)

• Fix the resume. Whatever time you would have spent casting about for ideas for your cover letter should be spent polishing your resume. This document will be considered by the interviewer as the high-water mark of your abilities. After all, if your resume isn't your best work, what is? Fix all the errors. Make the bullets line up. Show off how much you've accomplished. If you don't, no cover letter in the world, even if it were written by Shakespeare himself, will save you.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Silverman.