Does a resume need a cover letter? It’s a good question.
Career experts and writers have long reflexively said, “Yes!” but employer survey data doesn’t wholly support their answer.
Also, I’m not a fan of cover letters. As a recruiter of 25+ years, I:
- Didn’t require them.
- Rarely read them.
- More often disqualified candidates because of their letters than advanced them.
I always found the resume a meatier, more comprehensive read than most cover letters. Considering that, if you’re going to write one, try to craft an opportunity letter. They’re awesome if you can pull them off.
You’ll see my research in the next three sections covered the period between the Great Recession and the COVID recession.
But now it’s COVID times, and we’re back at double-digit unemployment.
Given that, even though employers have relaxed their interest in cover letters (see below), I would err on the side of caution and write one.
A study of 200 hiring decision-makers published in June 2020 confirms my advice.
What Did the ‘Tween Recession Data Say?
As mentioned above, you can find a lot of opinions on the necessity of cover letters.
However, I have a deep analytical streak, so I looked for research on the topic.
I found two reliable ‘Tween Recession studies.
In case you’re wondering, unemployment levels matter because potential employers can demand ridiculous job requirements during years of double-digit unemployment. They can’t do that when unemployment is under 7% and they often can’t find the perfect person for the job.
SHRM Study — 2014
The first study was published by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) in 2014. The findings showed that 78% of respondents didn’t care much about cover letters. I was glad to see I wasn’t alone.
The most interesting questions and answers reported were as follows:
- 22% of respondents said applicants make a mistake by omitting written cover letters from applications.
- 33% of respondents in organizations with one to 499 employees wanted to see a cover letter.
- 17% of respondents in organizations with 500 or more employees wanted to see a cover letter.
Beyond organization size, the participants’ organization type mattered:
- 20% of private-sector respondents wanted to see a cover letter.
- 34% of government respondents wanted to see a cover letter.
I tracked surveys and studies after I wrote the original version of this post in 2015. The reported cover letter requirements ranged from 22% to 65% and depended heavily on organization size and type.
Before COVID, the most recent study was a look at cover letter requirements in technology industry job postings published by The Ladders in 2019. They found that cover letter demands varied by company size:
- 48% of tech giants wanted a cover letter.
- 55% of mid-sized companies wanted one.
- 65% of start-ups wanted to see a cover letter.
What if You Don’t Want to Write a Cover Letter?
You miss every shot you don’t take. If you don’t want to write a letter, apply anyway. Given the research, it might not be a problem.
Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot — Common Cover Letter Mistakes
If you send a letter, run it through the free version of Grammarly to fix your spelling and grammar. Then, check for these stunningly common errors:
- Mis-addressing a cover letter.
- Mis-spelling manager.
- Confusing phase and faze.
- Confusing piqued and peaked.
- Run-on sentences.
Regardless of what you write, don’t rely on anyone reading your cover letter, including the applicant tracking system (ATS). Thus, be sure you have reviewed the job description and addressed as many of the skill and experience requirements in your resume as you can.
Meeting the Job Specs — What the Data Says
However, if you have an experience shortfall, you might apply anyway. According to a 2016 RiseSmart study, only 20% of employers demand a near-perfect match with their “requirements.”
A 2018 Talent Works study found you’re as likely to get an interview by matching 50% of the job requirements as a person who matches 90%. They found no incremental gain in interviews secured past a 50% match.
Ladies, Don’t Be Shy
Now, ladies, please pay attention. According to a 2019 LinkedIn study, you apply to 20% fewer jobs than men do. But you’re 16% more likely to get hired. Thus, if you’re in a job search, throw a few more letters and resumes over the transom. Take a risk if the job looks good.
This happened to one woman when she “manned up.”
More recently (July 2020), one of my clients didn’t fit the spec for a CEO role that a search consultant shared with her. She explained why the company was looking for the wrong background and why she was right for the job. We’re working on her new CEO bio right now. She got 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, for you to say so? Many recruiters automatically write, “Send your resume and cover letter to…” without thinking about what they’re demanding.
To be fair, don’t put your applicants through the wringer on this if you don’t plan to read their efforts. Writing a cover letter consumes job seekers’ time and energy and usually produces an outsized amount of angst. If you don’t want a cover letter, be explicit about it!
Cover Letter Samples
Finally, you probably want samples. I’ve already linked above to a post regarding opportunity letters (my favorite cover letters).
You can see another good cover letter sample here. It provides a simple formula designed to engage a recruiter or a hiring manager with your candidacy.
In closing, keep your communications as short and sweet as possible. Doing so limits opportunities for you to make faux pas that will kill your chance for an interview. Plus, it simplifies cover letter formatting.
Photo Courtesy of Norwood Fleet
Updated July 2020
© 2015 – 2020, 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 has written for and been quoted by 100+ business, general, and career media outlets, including Forbes, Mashable, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, Time, CBS, the BBC, Lifehacker, Ask.com, Social Media Today, IT World, SmartBrief, Payscale, Business News Daily, and the Muse.
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