Does a resume need a cover letter? It’s a good question.
Career experts and writers have long said, “Yes.” But employer survey data doesn’t always support their answer.
What the Research Says About Resumes Needing Cover Letters
Several surveys have been done on this topic over the last few years. Here are some links and summaries:
- ResumeLab 2022: 77% of recruiters preferred receiving a cover letter.
- Jobvite 2021: 26% of recruiters cared about cover letters.
- The Ladders 2019: Cover letters were most popular with small companies.
The crazy thing? The ResumeLab survey found 72% of recruiters expect letters even when ads say they’re optional.
Are Cover Letters Necessary?
It’s frustrating. But there are too many micro job markets and confounding variables to put faith in surveys.
They’re interesting for general temperature tests. But they don’t provide an unequivocal “OK” for job seekers to stop writing cover letters.
Thus, unless you can find:
- A current survey
- In your industry
- That says cover letters don’t matter
- And breaks the preference down by organization size
It’s best to include a cover letter with your resume.
However, if it’s the only thing stopping you from applying for a job, cross your fingers and send your resume. You miss all the shots you don’t take.
The Scary Secret Recruiters Keep About Cover Letters
Now, let me tell you about the secret recruiters know and research has proved:
Your cover letter is at least as likely to knock you out of contention for a job as your resume is, often more so.
Yes, cover letters are potential kryptonite. And recruiters rarely tell you that. Instead, they ask you for a cover letter.
When I recruited:
- I didn’t require cover letters.
- I rarely read them.
- When I read a cover letter, I more often disqualified the candidate than advanced them.
10 Common Cover Letter Mistakes
So, you need to send a cover letter. The recipient might or might not read it. And you must avoid common disqualifying mistakes in case they do.
In my experience, these are the most common mistakes:
- Getting the recipient wrong
- Neglecting to identify the job you want
- Writing a letter that doesn’t make sense (see a fix here)
- Mansplaining (shockingly common, especially economic commentary)
- Sending a pain letter
- Sending a 2-column cover letter
- Typos (use spell check)
- Grammar errors (use Grammarly)
- Confusing piqued and peaked
- Confusing phase and faze
BTW, if you’ve made a cover letter mistake, you might be able to recover from it.
How to Write a Cover Letter
Shifting gears a bit, given that a recipient might read your cover letter, how do you write a great one?
First, my favorite type of cover letter is an opportunity letter. Use it if you can. The link takes you to an explanation and a helpful sample.
Second, I crafted this recruiter-endorsed fill-in-the-blanks cover letter template for a Fast Company article I wrote.
A Cool Fact About Resumes and Cover Letters
Finally, I have a bonus round. Do you know that you don’t have to be 100% qualified for a job to apply for it?
If you match 50% of the job posting, go for it.
While market factors affect how picky employers can be, the truth is a lot of job postings are wish lists. Hiring managers don’t expect to get everything in the posting in one person.
And as searches progress, they often change their minds about requirements.
Beyond that, many unarticulated factors go into interviewing and hiring decisions.
Women especially need to pay attention to that 50% number. Per a 2019 LinkedIn study, they apply to 20% fewer jobs than men. However, they’re 16% more likely to get hired when they apply.
You don’t have to be a perfect match to get the job!
Recruiter Call to Action
And, for recruiters reading this post, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you don’t care about cover letters to say so? Many recruiters automatically write, “Send your resume and cover letter to…” without thinking about what they’re asking.
Be fair, don’t put your applicants through the wringer on cover letters if you don’t plan to read them. Writing letters consumes job seekers’ time and energy and usually produces excessive angst.
Thus, if you don’t want a cover letter, say, “We promise we don’t read cover letters. So, please do not include one.”
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Updated March 2023
© 2015 – 2023, Donna Svei. All rights reserved.
Donna Svei, an executive resume writer and former C-level executive, retained search consultant, and CPA, authors all of AvidCareerist’s posts.
She is a Fast Company Contributor and has written for and been quoted by 100+ business and general media outlets, including Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, CNBC, the New York Times, USA Today, Time, US News & World Report, CBS, the BBC, Lifehacker, Social Media Today, IT World, and Business News Daily.
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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.
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!
Great article! As an Executive & Career Coach, I get questioned all the time on whether a Cover Letter is necessary or not.
Thank you Donna!
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.
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.
Very good point about explaining a relo. I love it when comments enrich what I’ve written! Thank you.
I’m with you too Warren! Donna
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.
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.
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.
Thank you Connor. Donna
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?
Thank you Paul.
I would guess that even fewer hiring managers read cover letters, but I don’t have any data on that.
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.
Donna, perhaps you could indicate what additional information could be included in a Cover Letter other than the Accomplishments noted in the resume, which many advisors suggest shouldn’t be regurgitated in a cover letter, thanks.
This post, that I linked to in the text above, describes my favorite approach to cover letters: Your Cover Letter: Write an Opportunity Letter, Not a Pain Letter.
I love partnering with my clients to write these!
Thank you for giving is a list of potential pitfalls in cover letters, Donna. First on your list is getting the recipient wrong. Frequently, we are applying for jobs, where we do not know who the recipient will be. Should we just write, “Dear Hiring Manager?”
Hi Karin, Try to find the hiring manager. If you can’t do that, I would use “Dear Selection Team.” Donna