Dear J.T. & Dale: I've heard writing a strong, customized cover letter is the key to getting your resume noticed. Having devoted a lot of time to writing letters and gotten no response, I'm starting to wonder: Am I wasting my time? - Thad

Dale: Having read a lot of job applications, and having watched hiring managers read them, I have to give you my least favorite answer: It depends. Some people read cover letters first; some skip to the resume, then come back to the cover letter if they like what they find there; some focus almost exclusively on the resume. So all we can conclude is that it matters to some managers, and so it's not a waste of time. However, that brings us to the bigger question: When looking for a job, what's the best use of your time? You probably think I'm going to answer networking, because that's the mantra of all career advice, but no - first you have to do the research. Until you've done the work of figuring out what type of job you want and what companies you want to work for, you can't do effective networking.

J.T.: I'm sure Thad is wondering if you're ever going to get back to cover letters.

Dale: I hope Thad never gets to them. I hope he fills his time with research and making relevant connections, and finds a job without ever having to resort to mailing out unsolicited resumes.

J.T.: OK, but that same research and making connections will enable him to write a great cover letter - and he will find time to send some, I'm sure; after all, there will be perfect jobs that get advertised, or contacts who tell him to send a resume. I tell my clients to create a cover letter that gets them at HELLO - which means the first sentence must NOT be I'm applying for your job as listed on ... Rather, cover letters need to tell the story of:

A) What specifically is impressive about the company? And...

B) What in your personal/professional experience has taught you that this is something to be impressed by?

This is where your research comes to life, sharing with a hiring manager your respect for what the company does and the origin of that respect. That's how you demonstrate you'd be a good fit. Why? Because there are plenty of other people with equally good skills who are also applying. Your best shot is a cover letter that shows your personality and makes the hiring manager want to meet you.

Dale: Well said. But Thad, promise me that you'll give your priority, and most of your time, to finding the right positions and meeting the right people. Then, on those rare occasions when you mail out a resume, you can find time to write a great cover letter.