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Do Cover Letters Still Matter?

June 1, 2020
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For many job seekers, writing the cover letter is the bane of the application process. Sure, it can be a great opportunity to set yourself apart from the pack, but crafting a thoughtful cover letter can be time-consuming and might seem like more trouble than it’s worth — especially when there’s no guarantee that anyone will actually read it. And often, cover letters aren’t even required anymore as part of the application process.

So it’s reasonable to wonder if cover letters still actually matter. Talent experts offer a mix of viewpoints on the subject, and their relationship with cover letters echoes one of Facebook’s more cryptic options: The answer, it seems, is, “It’s complicated.”

The short answer though, is yes, cover letters still matter. According to a recent survey from ResumeLab, 83% of HR professionals say that cover letters are important in their hiring decisions.

“Think of a well-written cover letter as the maraschino cherry on top of the sundae that is your entire job application,” said Carlota Zimmerman, a career coach who specializes in creating personalized strategies to help clients reach their personal and professional goals. “A polished, smart, and concise cover letter is an immediate way to separate yourself from the herd.”

So while in some cases a cover letter might not be necessary or even required, it can serve to elevate an application and make it stand out. Here are some things cover letters can help you accomplish, and what to keep in mind as you write one.

Getting a Foot in the Door

ResumeLab’s survey found that a stellar cover letter can land you an interview even if your resume isn’t good enough a staggering 83% of the time. Matthew Ross, cofounder and COO of Know Ventures which runs review sites including RIZKNOWS and Slumber Yard, might be the ultimate story of using a cover letter to get attention and secure an interview: He went viral in 2013 for his unorthodox and extremely honest one. His risk paid off because he landed that job, proving that a cover letter can make the difference between getting or not getting an opportunity that might initially seem like a huge reach.

“In my opinion, cover letters are absolutely necessary. A one- or two-page resume simply doesn't tell the entire story,” sayid Ross, now that he’s on the receiving end of applications. “In my opinion, only submitting a resume is a sign of laziness.”

The cover letter can flesh out your resume, and perhaps more importantly, not submitting one can actually harm your application by reflecting poorly on your work ethic. 

A Match Made in Recruiting Heaven 

Michael Tomaszewski, resume expert at ResumeLab, weighs in with some additional insights from the company’s survey. Of the cover letter, he said, “According to our respondents, it explains the motivation to join the company, effectively describes career objectives, and provides the reasons for changing careers. It also shows the candidate's personality."

In her article on CNBC, the writer Debby Carreau notes that the cover letter is a place to share other information about yourself rather than just repeat what you’ve already written on your resume. For instance, you could write about interesting hobbies you have that led you to be interested in the field of work you’re applying for, or include a backstory that explains why you admire the company, she said.

Alison Green, founder of the popular blog Ask a Manager, shared a reader’s cover letter in a blog post calling it “one of the best I’ve ever seen.” Despite the fact that she could tell that the position was for a more-entry level candidate, the applicant, who was a seasoned professional, sold herself spectacularly. She deftly handled the notion of salary by explaining that a short commute and flexibility were also important to her — and even mentioned that she’s a mom, in the process. Normally, this choice might seem like a cover letter faux pas, but instead it illuminated how someone who seems like an unconventional fit for the job can actually be the best person for the company.

Finally, make sure to tailor your cover letter to the job and organization you’re applying to, both in content and tone. “Remember to keep the tone on par with the company culture,” said Andrew Fennell, writer and founder of CV writing advice website StandOut CV, in his article on Fast Company. “While a modern marketing agency may appreciate a more creative and conversational tone, a traditional corporate office may prefer that you keep it professional.”

The cover letter is the place to make sure the hiring manager gets the message you want to convey, whether this is your dream job, you have a unique personal connection to the company, or you’ll make a perfect culture fit.

Keeping the Resume Top of Mind

While cover letters certainly have their place, in an article on CNBC, Ian Siegel, CEO and cofounder of ZipRecruiter, estimates that “more than 70% of resumes are now reviewed by robots before they ever reach a human reader.” Because of this, he stresses the importance of using standard file types, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, and checking spelling and grammar. “Clearly list your skills and make it easy for the parser to understand your years of experience,” Siegel continues. He also advises making your cover letter concise and to-the-point, boiling it down to these three key points: “Show enthusiasm, show you’ve done research, and show you want to come in there and make a contribution,” he said.

“While an employer might not request a cover letter, sending one along with your resume certainly won’t hurt you and will only serve to elevate your candidacy,” said Jenna McGinnis, Director of Client Triumph at Mentor Happy, a career development platform for finding professional happiness, and certified resume writer and career coach, in her article on Forbes.

There is one giant caveat, though, and that’s that some experts say a cover letter can actually hurt you in some instances. “If a cover letter comes across as very generic, without any specific details related to your company, chances are he or she simply sent the same cover letter to several employers,” said Adam Robinson, CEO of Hireology, in an article on Inc. “Ultimately, this might mean they're simply looking for a new job, rather than being motivated to specifically join your team.”

Therefore, candidates need to craft a thoughtful cover letter for each job, rather than just churning out a generic one. 

Sure, writing a great cover letter might take up a bit of your time. But the worst-case scenario is that someone doesn’t read it, while the best-case one is that it gets your foot in the door, showcases your soft skills or why you’re a great culture fit, and could be the thing that ultimately lands you the job. All in all, if the job is really important to you, it’s not worth the risk of skipping the cover letter.