Do You Really Have to Send a Cover Letter with Your Resume?

A classic cover letter mistake has long been not bothering to send one. Call it a sin of omission.

I’m OK with this because, as a recruiter, I almost never read cover letters. I find the resume a meatier, more comprehensive read than most cover letters.

You can find opinions a-go-go on the necessity of cover letters. Sadly, there’s not much hard data backing up either the pro or con positions.

I was curious, so I decided to look for some good research on the topic.

I found three reliable studies from the past twelve years, the most recent being a 2014 SHRM study.

SHRM Study — 2014

The 2014 SHRM survey of HR professionals found:

1. 22% of respondents think applicants make a mistake by omitting cover letters from their job applications.

2. 33% of respondents in organizations with one to 499 employees want to see a cover letter.

3. 17% of respondents in organizations 500 or more employees want to see a cover letter.

Beyond size, the participants’ organization type mattered:

1. 20% of private sector respondents want to see a cover letter.

2. 34% of government respondents want to see a cover letter.

Later Studies

I’ve noticed reports of new surveys since I wrote the original version of this post. The overall finding of the 2014 SHRM study appears to be holding steady.

Conclusion

It’s still a mistake to omit a cover letter because you can’t be sure who cares and who doesn’t, and a letter can be influential in hiring decisions (positively and negatively).

However, most HR professionals appear to be losing interest in cover letters.

Given that, if you’re on the fence about applying for a job, and not writing a cover letter would push you over, send your resume. You have at least a 66% chance the recipient won’t mind.

Note to Recruiters

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if recruiters who don’t care about cover letters would say so?

Here’s the language I use when I recruit: “Please send your MS Word resume to Donna Svei, Executive Search Consultant.”

I think I’ll shift to this: “Please send your MS Word resume (cover letter optional) to Donna Svei, Executive Search Consultant.”

I write executive resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Save time. Get hired. Please email me at donnasvei@gmail.com.

Photo Courtesy of Norwood Fleet
Updated June 2017

© 2015 – 2017, Donna Svei. All rights reserved.

Comments 15

  1. If the company’s online application software gives you the opportunity to upload one or more additional documents in addition to your resume, are you making a mistake by not using that opportunity to upload a cover letter? I have encountered several such sites where I will always wonder if the addition of a cover letter might have afforded me the opportunity to get an interview.

  2. Post
    Author

    Hi John,

    It’s up to the idiosyncrasies of whoever is reviewing your application. Some recruiters and hiring managers think cover letters are uber important. Like me, others don’t read them at all. (That’s why I loved the 2014 SHRM survey; it seems I’m no longer in the minority on that!)

    Many applicant tracking systems only scan the resume. If you get selected by the ATS for human review, then that person might or might not read your cover letter. If your cover letter gets read and it is fabulous, then it might help your candidacy. Sadly, most cover letters are poorly written and do more damage than anything to candidates’ prospects.

    I think you would be better off uploading a printout of your LinkedIn recommendations. Unless, of course, they’ve specifically asked for a cover letter. Then give them one.

    Thank you for the terrific question!

    Donna

  3. Great article. I visit a class that is given by the local unemployment office, and I never know what to tell them about writing cover letters. I am going to use this information.

    I typically don’t read the cover letter unless i need more information. For example if the person lives in another state, I want there to be something in the cover letter about their plan/reason for relocating.

  4. Very good point about explaining a relo. I love it when comments enrich what I’ve written! Thank you.

  5. I’m with you Donna…I think cover letters are a huge conundrum for job seekers. Most of the recruiters I know report that they do not read them, at least not on the initial review, unless they have specifically asked for applicants to submit one. Still, others request them and use them purely as a screening tool–a way to screen out applicants to narrow the pool. On the one hand, I think that’s unfair for applicants (and also not a good way to limit the applicant pool). On the other hand, communication is such a critical skill for almost any job these days, so I can somewhat understand the thought process. I have generally told clients that unless you are a particularly strong writer, or the ad requires one, or you have something you need to clarify/explain (career change, absence from the workforce, etc.), you are probably not going to be penalized for not submitting one. At the end of the day, recruiters are pragmatic–if your resume is outstanding, they’ll call if they think you’re a contender.

  6. I would agree that a poorly written cover letter can damage your prospects, but I would always like to know in advance how well the applicant can express themselves. If they can’t express themselves well in a cover letter why think that they’ll be better able to do so in the job?
    I think the cover letter can also give you a “feel” for what the applicant is like and how well they may fit within the team. I would always read a cover letter, after all you’ve presumably given the job requirements/specifications in the advertisement and the CV should deal with those.
    I’ve frequently dealt with 100+ applications for one job, almost all with somewhat similar CV’s. The cover letter has usually been the deciding factor for who gets interviewed.

  7. Hi Brendan,

    I’ve done searches for senior execs where the majority of cover letters would disqualify the applicants if I chose to use their letters as part of the assessment process.

    Rather, if someone will be in a position to delegate most of their writing/editing responsibilities, I don’t use their letters against them. I look at what will matter in their job performance and focus on those factors.

    I do, however, expect their resume to cover all the relevant points and make a convincing argument that they’re a good candidate for the job at hand. If the resume is up to snuff, I don’t need them to connect any dots for me in a cover letter. From an efficiency perspective, I appreciate getting 100% of the info I need in their resume.

    All that said, you make a valuable point. Thank you for sharing it.

    Donna

  8. Good idea on including the part about “we don’t read cover letters” – just may include that on the next job posting!

    Interesting findings. The cover letter may be dying and in it’s place will remain social profiles and online portfolios.

    Connor

  9. Interesting! I’ve long felt that sending a cover letter to a recruiter was a waste of time. Yes, Donna, please include (cover letter optional) in your job postings. I wonder if the data is similar for hiring managers?

  10. Thank you Paul.

    I would guess that even fewer hiring managers read cover letters, but I don’t have any data on that.

    Donna

  11. Donna, I basically agree with you about it being a mistake not to send a cover letter, however, in my opinion it needs to be a cover letter that is not overly wordy; applicants often feel the need to add fluff to a cover letter, and this can hurt their chances of having their resume read. I am a food headhunter with 30 years experience in both foods and consumer packaged goods recruiting, and that is my view in my industry.

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