Overlooked Cover-Letter Study May Support Storytelling in the Job Search

I recently rediscovered an academic journal article that I had first encountered in 2006. Though I had never seen any buzz or media attention to the study behind the article, I found it rather significant.

The article described a case study of a single job applicant. This job-seeker had electronically submitted applications for 27 vacancies back in 2005. The candidate submitted nine with no cover letter, nine with a one-sentence cover note. Finally, she submitted nine with a cover letter.

Author Sam H. DeKay reported that “no application submitted without a cover letter or just the one-sentence cover note received a response. However, all nine application forwarded with cover letters resulted in invitations to interviews,” one of which resulted in a job offer.

Slightly complicating this study is the fact that the subject created two styles of cover letter. Apparently no differences occurred in employer reaction to these two different styles. Th author claimed the first style conveyed “emotional engagement with the prospective position.” Following is the paragraph he claimed contained this emotional content:

I would like to be considered for the Training Director Position. I have had over twenty years’ experience designing, developing, and delivering training programs at all levels of the organization. I have also designed needs assessments to determine organizational learning and developed programs to meet those needs. I look forward to hearing from you.

DeKay claims the one-paragraph letter was “intended to convey emotional engagement with the prospective position.” Really? I don’t see much emotional content in that paragraph.

I see much more emotional content — in fact I see a story — in the second type of cover letter the job-seeker sent. The story is in the first paragraph, quoted below; the other two paragraphs, in my opinion, contain standard cover-letter language, so I’m not including them here:

I am extremely interested in the training coordinator position. I was active in the training profession for years, but two years ago, I decided to enroll in law school. I am now at a position in my legal studies that I can attend part-time.

As it stands, this study shows in a limited way that job-seekers who accompany their resumes with cover letters are more likely to get interviews. I find it interesting that employers made no distinction between what I consider the storied cover letter and the non-storied example. I’d love to see a study aimed at the differences in so-called emotional content. I had focus-group members evaluate storied cover letters during my dissertation research, but they did not compare them to non-storied examples.

Both letters, in my opinion, also are flawed. The first one uses the phrase “I look forward to hearing from you” instead of taking a proactive stance that suggests the job-seeker will follow up with the employer. The second letter begs the question, will this applicant leave the position as training coordinator once she finishes law school?

Still the study suggests interesting possibilities for storied cover letters with emotional content. It also shows the importance of always including a cover letter when you send a resume.

The article appears in the December 2006 issue of Business Communication Quarterly and is titled “Expressing Emotion in Electronic Job Cover Letters.”