Our recruiters are split on their love/hate of the cover letter, which tracks: One study suggests that about 56% of employers want them included in applications. So how do you decide when to include one, and what should your cover letter say?
Scan for Clues
Let’s start with the obvious: If the job listing tells you to include a cover letter, include one. “It doesn’t happen often these days, but, from time to time, you might come across a job post requiring a cover letter,” says The HT Group Senior Technical Recruiter Scott Courville. We heard from a tech-industry hiring manager who says he always states in his job listings that a cover letter is required. He runs a customer success team that must balance people and tech skills equally. “I genuinely like to read the cover letter to find out how they articulate why this job, this industry, etc. But it’s also a test to see if they pay attention to detail. If you’re going to rush through and miss ‘directions’ for something as important as a job application requirement, then you’re not a fit for my team.”
We don’t have research to back it up, but in our experience, hiring managers are more likely than outside recruiters to read your cover letter. As Indeed explains, “Since hiring managers may receive a smaller number of cover letters than candidates who initially applied to the position, they may be more likely to read the letters. The professional who plans to interview you for the role may also read your cover letter and [form] questions based on the information that you included in the document.”
Don’t Make It Essential Reading
Therefore, don’t assume the cover letter – even if requested – will be read. At least half the time, it won’t. Your resume must be able to stand on its own. “The resume really should speak for itself with tenure and comprehensive bullet points,” explains The HT Group Recruiter Lindsey Morehart. “If a resume can’t hold its own weight, I’m not going to spend time reading a full page with multiple paragraphs about the person.” Courville agrees, adding, “The top of a resume should have a well-written summary, plus an accomplishments and expertise-type section below the summary with some bullet points. It’s a faster snapshot of a candidate’s abilities.”
Add to the Story
While it’s not the place to include essential information that may or may not be read, your cover letter should color the picture you’ve already painted of yourself in your resume. As The HT Group Recruiter Tatum Teer explains, it can be a chance for a new grad or someone attempting a complete career overhaul to offer a clear case of “why me.” “If a candidate is going to send one, though, I think short and sweet is the best way to go. Highlight the skills that are most relevant,” she advises. In rare cases, adds Courville, a candidate might be applying for a position and have a unique or personal story that could help get them to the interview table. “In a situation like this, it will be advantageous for the candidate to have a visual as to why open the attached cover letter. Have the file name that catches the eye of the applicant reviewer or hiring manager or something like that,” he suggests.
Recruiters Change the Game
A great point that our recruiters brought to our attention is that whether you automatically include a cover letter or not could depend on whether you’re applying for a specific job or directly with an employer versus through an outside firm. “I feel like a cover letter is more important if applying to an employer directly, but not needed when applying to a role with a staffing agency,” says HT Group Recruiter Savannah Stanley. The HT Group Recruiting Manager Yaya Moore agrees, adding, “As a staffing agency, I prefer to call and hear the information from the candidate.” But why guess at that point? If you’re working with a recruiter, ask them.
In the End, It’s Good Practice
Whether you use a cover letter or not, whether it gets read or not, creating one for each job you’re applying for is good practice. Courville points out that, if well written, “your cover letter could be used as a ‘quick script’ if caught off guard on an unscheduled call from the company.” Use it as a reference point that can be pulled up quickly to help you gather your thoughts. After all, ideally, the cover letter answers key questions that often get asked in an interview, like “Why are you interested in working for our company?” and “Why should we hire you?”
Just Be Thoughtful, OK?
Is there any reason a cover letter could hurt your chances of moving to the next step? Maybe. Cover letters that include grammatical or spelling errors or that commit other sins could be detrimental. “I think many people nowadays don’t know how to write a good cover letter. They seem to be re-used, unspecific, and often provide too many details that aren’t necessary or create red flags,” Morehart warns. So, if you’re going to include one, make it brief, specific, and proofread it carefully. “Cover letters are a nice touch and aren’t as common as they used to be,” adds The HT Group Recruiter Alex Clark, who agrees that while the absence of a cover letter is often forgivable, errors in them can be very noticeable. For one, “change the content of the cover letter according to the role you are applying for,” Clark recommends.
So, when it comes to a cover letter, you could do best with the mantra: When in doubt, send it out. But don’t overly rely on it being read, and certainly, be sure it’s polished and professional. Contact our recruiters for more guidance.