The earliest record of the cover letter for employment dates back to the 1950s according to The Atlantic, and has been used ever since as an addition to resumes, for candidates to prove to potential employers their desire and eligibility for posted roles. In recent years, however, especially since the post-pandemic unemployment upheaval, the choice of whether or not to include cover letters as part of the job application process has been a topic of contentious debate, and has left most candidates confused as to whether or not to include them, especially if the employer has not specifically requested them.
In a recent LinkedIn poll I conducted, more than 70% of respondents (a mix of recruiters, hiring managers, and candidates) voted that cover letters are no longer necessary as part of the shortlisting process. However, across the Internet, there were others who advocated its use, provided the right conditions were met.
The question remains, Should we write cover letters for jobs, even if they’re not mandated in the application process?
When cover letters are needed
Emily Meekins, CEO and Founder of talent consultancy Workstrat, points out that she rarely reviews cover letters. “85% of the time, I can learn enough from your resume and LinkedIn profile. The application/interview process is time-consuming enough without a cover letter. I’d prefer candidates save their time and reapply it to other areas of their search.” However, Meekins adds that she would look at a cover letter if she is on the fence and needs more information to help make an informed decision, or to check for quality of writing and communication skills.
I spoke with Yulia Saf, Founder and CEO of MissTourist.com, who has hired and led a team of up to 12 employees remotely, and asked her to share her experiences and insights on this topic. Saf revealed that cover letters have significantly impacted her decision to hire candidates on several occasions, noting that “candidates who include a persuasive cover letter often stand out during the shortlisting phase, as it provides insight into their passion and determination for the role.”
Maurizio Petrione, founder of the remote-first digital media start-up MustReadQuotes.com, has been hiring talent for over 15 years, and highlights that from his experience, “cover letters have played an essential element in hiring decisions, even when we didn’t specifically request them. Out of the hundreds of candidates we shortlisted over the past five years, about 70% included cover letters in their applications. These letters helped shed light on their motivations and gave a better insight into their soft skills – things often not immediately evident in resumes.”
Cover letters are a fantastic way to explore beyond the confines of one’s resume and tell a compelling narrative about your career journey, motivations and aspirations for the job, and even transferable skills, especially for those facing perceived barriers in the workplace. This makes it an excellent choice for those making a career pivot or transition.
As Thomas Codevilla, business attorney, Co-Founder and hiring manager at SK&S Law Group points out, “A well-written cover letter allows candidates to tell a compelling narrative about their experiences and how they can uniquely contribute to our organization. On the hiring side, I know that ATS often play a role in screening applications. What many candidates might not realize is that incorporating relevant keywords from the job posting into their cover letters can significantly improve their chances of getting past this initial screening stage.
“As a recruiter, I appreciate it when candidates address their cover letters to a specific individual or mention a mutual connection within the company. It not only shows that they’ve done their research but also increases the likelihood that their application will catch my attention.
“A cover letter gives candidates the opportunity to address any potential red flags in their resume, such as employment gaps or career changes. When a candidate proactively explains these issues, it shows their transparency and willingness to provide context, which can positively influence my perception of their application.”
Best practice when crafting your cover letter
While cover letters are a great way to demonstrate your value to a potential employer, you should always ensure that it actually delivers real value and is not a mere repetition of your resume, HR generalist Mary Pizana of personal injury law firm Herrman and Herrman cautions.
Kirsty Barden, Head of Business Development at MDS, a talent acquisition company with 37 years in the business, highlights some best practices to remember when writing up a cover letter:
Customise each cover letter
“Tailor your cover letter for each specific application and company. Address the hiring manager or recruiter by name if possible and demonstrate your knowledge of the company and the role you’re applying for.”
Highlight relevant experiences and skills
“Emphasise the experiences and skills from your CV that directly relate to the job description and requirements. Use specific examples to demonstrate your capabilities.”
Showcase your passion
“Express genuine enthusiasm for the company and the opportunity. Explain why you are interested in the role and how it aligns with your career goals.”
Keep it concise and focused
“A cover letter should be concise, typically one page. Avoid unnecessary details and maintain a clear focus on the key points you want to convey.”
Be professional and error-free
“Pay close attention to grammar, spelling, and formatting. A well-written and error-free cover letter demonstrates attention to detail and professionalism.”
Demonstrate cultural fit
“Highlight your alignment with the company’s values and culture. Show that you are a team player and can thrive within the organization’s environment.”
End with a call to action
“Conclude the cover letter by expressing your interest in further discussing your qualifications and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to apply.”
Executive Cleaning Services Vice President Thomas Giarraputo recommends candidates use Venn diagrams when beginning to craft their cover letter. “Telling stories from your career is an excellent way to demonstrate your skills and give hiring managers a glimpse of your demeanor and work style.
“Always refer to the position’s requirements in the job description when searching for appropriate anecdotes to share. It is also beneficial to conduct additional online investigation on the company to gain a sense of its culture. Before writing your cover letter, compare your talents to the position’s requirements.
“Utilizing Venn diagrams can be useful for generating ideas and determining which competencies and experiences to highlight. After creating this diagram and identifying what belongs in both circles, overlapping topics will guide and inspire the content of your cover letter.”
When cover letters should not be used
On the flip side, Sam Greinetz, Recruiting Partner at Signed Talent, points out that the recruitment industry has witnessed a significant shift over the past decade, with hundreds of candidates applying for one position where there were only 10-15 a few years years ago, and certain industries which rely more on hard skills, such as the tech industry, do not have the capacity for hiring managers and recruiters to read every cover letter sent through.
Greinetz recommends trying a different approach to sending in your cover letter. “Rather than a cover letter, if someone is especially interested in a role, they are better off reaching out to the recruiter or hiring manager directly either via email or on Linkedin to reiterate their excitement. That message can be similar to what a cover letter would include and will allow them to stick out in a crowded applicant pool. Show that you’ve done some homework, personalize it, talk about the team, product, etc. and don’t be afraid to follow-up after a few days if you haven’t heard anything.”
Anthony Allen, VP of Recruiting at Supply Chain Talent Advisors, states that while he agrees that most recruiters don’t have the time to read cover letters, if one is to be written, “the candidate must personalize and tailor the cover letter. A generic, one-size-fits-all cover letter is easy to spot and often disregarded. To stand out, research the company and the role, and tailor your cover letter accordingly. Mention how your skills and experiences align with the job requirements and the company’s goals. By doing this, you show the hiring manager that you understand their needs and can bring specific value to the position. This level of personalization is what can make a cover letter impactful, even in situations where its importance might be diminishing.”
So what does all of this mean for job seekers?
In a nutshell:
- When applying for a job directly to an employer, use a cover letter that is well-personalized, tells impactful career stories, conveys your motivations for the role, and speaks to why you want to work for that particular employer. Demonstrate that you understand their pain-points, clients, and values, and that their mission and values align with yours.
- Think creatively of other ways to include a cover letter approach, such as sending an email or LinkedIn InMail to the hiring manager directly.
- Ensure your cover letter is not a repetition of your resume.
- Cover letters are best used when facing barriers such as career gaps, career transitions, lack of experience, or to increase competitive edge, especially for senior level roles.
- If applying for technical roles or applying directly through recruitment agencies, consider leaving the cover letter out altogether so as not to waste your time. Also take time to research if the industry you are entering or applying for roles in, typically reviews cover letters. After all, you don’t want to waste your time or that of the recruiter/hiring manager.
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