Ahh, the much-maligned cover letter. Nobody – well, almost nobody – likes writing them. Many people would argue that they’re outdated, an anachronism from another era with no place in today’s world. And yet, some job postings and hiring managers still request, even require, them.
For the most part, I agree with the argument that the cover letter is a holdover from the past. When paper resumes arrived by mail, they had their place in days gone by. They served as a formal introduction, not unlike a calling card. They were a way of explaining why the document had been sent and addressing ‘to whom it may concern’ – a role played today by the body text of an email or through social media.
Over time, the cover letter evolved to become more than just an introduction or opening paragraph. It became a required supplement to the resume itself, expected to contain additional information about work experience not found in the resume. But along the way, resumes have evolved, too. Today, a well-crafted resume should stand on its own, tailored to respond to the unique requirements of the job application at hand.
So, with all that said, the cover letter has no use anymore, right? Right. Except…when it does.
When & How to Use a Cover Letter
There are two ways in which a cover letter can still be very beneficial for both the employer and prospective employee.
A Pre-screening Option
An effective cover letter can be a great way of learning more about candidates before you interview them, specifically, the skillset that you won’t see in a resume. To do this, you might ask applicants to answer one or more specific questions in a cover letter. For example, you might ask them what appealed to them about the job or the company. Or perhaps what they consider to be their most significant professional achievement. Yes, these are questions commonly asked in interviews, but their answers can also make for excellent launching points for ice-breaking conversation in an interview. As an aside, this can also be a way to assess an applicant’s attention to detail and written communication skills. If they didn’t include what you requested, it’s valid to question why. If you cannot write well, that might be the end of the process.
One caveat: I don’t advise using the cover letter as a means of evaluating good writing abilities. Many candidates enlist the help of others to help write resumes and cover letters and, in some cases, outsource the task altogether. The writing skills you’re evaluating may not be those of your candidate, but the inability to write reflects the first impression of the candidate.
Share Information that Would Not be Included in a Resume
The cover letter shines, though, when the employer does not necessarily require it but submitted at the candidate’s option. Why might the jobseeker ask, should I write a cover letter if it’s not required?
There are a wide variety of professional and personal circumstances that could have a positive bearing on your candidacy and yet can’t be outlined in a resume. You would explain things to an interviewer should you be shortlisted to interview, but that could lose you the chance. Enter the cover letter.
Perhaps you’re navigating a career change, in which case your previous experience doesn’t immediately appear to be a fit for the potential employer and position you’re applying for. A cover letter can provide additional context that the person screening your resume might need. Maybe you’re applying for a job that is a great distance from where you currently live. The recruiter might not understand why…until they read in your cover letter that you have specific plans in place to relocate. The cover letter can also be a means of outlining restrictive conditions to avoid wasting your time interviewing for jobs that can’t accommodate those conditions. For example, if you’re only able to work in a remote or hybrid position, or if you’re not able to start a new job until after a specific date, the body of your cover letter can explain this.
One final note on length. A cover letter should never run longer than a single page. Brief introductory and closing paragraphs, sandwiching a paragraph with the ‘meat’ – the information you want to get across – is all you should ever need. If you think you need more, your resume is likely the document that needs some work.
The Bottom Line
My bottom line, then: I don’t believe a cover letter should be required ‘just because.’ Unless it’s serving a legitimate purpose like the ones above or is requested, the cover letter may be left to the same fate as the calling card, as the well-written resume stands on its own.