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In my days as a hiring agent, I saw my fair share of applicants who were befuddled by the cover letter vs. E-note conundrum. As I opened their emails, I could almost see them—brows furrowed, hesitating to click “send”—puzzled by what on earth to write in the email, since they were also attaching a cover letter.

when_to_use_cover_letter_vs_e_noteThe often-amiss strategies included everything from saying nothing at all in the body of the email—causing me to question whether I should even open the mysterious files sent to me—to copying and pasting the exact content from the attached cover letter into the email body, just to ensure all bases were covered.

Mastering job-search etiquette doesn’t have to be a mind-boggling endeavor of deciphering complex codes of behavior. But as technology forges ahead, recruiters and job searchers alike are often left in the dust, scratching their heads while clinging to job-search formalities that no longer makes sense.

While the practicality of the cover letter as it is traditionally understood is clearly debatable, as a career changer, you would do well to equip yourself with the tools necessary to interact with those who expect a more traditional approach. But be prepared to interface with those who may view the formality of a traditional cover letter as something behind the times—or even stuffy—and who may expect a more modern E-note.

To help demystify whether an E-note or cover letter is the right choice, let me first explain the difference between the two:

In general, a traditional cover letter follows the structure and conventions of a formal business letter and should use the same letterhead as the accompanying resume. In contrast, an E-note is the message written in the body of an email that you send with your resume attached (with no cover letter included). E-notes may also differ in that they are generally shorter overall and are easier to skim—shorter paragraphs, often with short lists to format the information into content that is very easy to digest.

It is important, however, to keep in mind that while E-notes have emerged as a result of the changing technology (email, social media, smartphones, etc.) that has altered how jobs are applied for and how candidates are reviewed, the way in which information in general is consumed has fundamentally shifted. Thus the trend toward brevity and “scannability” has emerged and made its way into the formal cover letter itself, rendering the two documents, in some cases, virtually indistinguishable, except in form.

So which format is appropriate when? While you’ll be required in some cases to make a judgment call as to which tool is best for you, below are some general guidelines:
 

Use a traditional cover letter (where it may be appropriate to draft a longer letter):

1. When the job ad indicates that you should include one.

2. When you have been specifically invited to send in your resume.

3. For internal hiring or when selection is conducted through a hiring committee.

4. If the job ad is highly specific and there are essential requirements, all of which you must address in the letter.
 

Use an E-note format:

1. When submitting resumes via email. Most companies will consider a clearly developed E-note to be a cover letter, thus your E-note will do the trick.

2. When applying to a job through an online application requiring plain text format.

3. When sending messages on LinkedIn to prospective employers.

4. When your main goal is to capture your reader’s attention and pique their curiosity to read your resume (unsolicited resumes or situations where many candidates will likely apply).

Whichever format works best for your specific case, the letter must clearly communicate your unique promise of value and highlight your strongest selling points—which you provide further details on in the resume—to differentiate you from your competitors. And, with the trend toward more succinct writing in all of our communications, it is essential to be more selective than ever in your word choices, eliminating clichéd terms that could describe thousands of other candidates, in favor of powerful keywords that describe your specific areas of expertise.

With recruiter preferences changing just as quickly as the new technologies that permeate our lives, the key is to remain flexible in your job search strategies and ensure that you have all the tools in place to respond most effectively, depending on the type of opportunities that come your way.

For more information on creating your branding materials, register for our next complimentary webinar "Brand YOU: Building a Unique, Professional Executive Profile".

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