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 always support their answer.
What the Research Says About Resumes Needing Cover Letters
A number of surveys have been done on this topic over the last several years. Here are some links and high-level results:
- SHRM 2014: 78% of respondents didn’t care about cover letters.
- The Ladders 2019: Tech; most popular with small companies.
- ResumeLab 2020: 77% of recruiters preferred receiving a cover letter.
- Jobvite 2020: 27% of recruiters cared about cover letters.
So, what conclusions can we draw? It seems that when it comes to cover letter requirements:
- Organization size matters.
- Industry matters.
- The state of the economy might or might not matter.
- We can’t rely on surveys to give us consistent information.
Are Cover Letters Necessary?
It’s frustrating, but there are too many micro job markets and confounding variables to put faith in the surveys.
They’re interesting for general temperature tests, but they don’t provide an unequivocal “OK” for us 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 overall preference down by organization size
It’s best to include a cover letter with your resume. However, if it’s the only thing preventing you from applying for a particular job, cross your fingers and send your resume. You miss all the shots you don’t take.
The 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 cover letters, I more often disqualified the candidate than advanced them.
10 Common Cover Letter Mistakes
So, not only do you need to send a cover letter that the recipient might or might not read, but you must avoid common disqualifying mistakes in case they do.
In my experience, these are the worst of the 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 two-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 actually 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 love this short and sweet cover letter example from the Harvard Business Review because the brevity keeps people out of trouble.
A Cool Fact About Resumes and Cover Letters
Finally, I have a bonus round. Do you know that you don’t have to be totally qualified for a job to apply for it?
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 recorded no incremental gain in interviews past a 50% match.
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.
Beyond that, at the individual level, a lot of unarticulated factors go into interviewing and hiring decisions.
Women especially need to pay attention to that 50% number because, per a 2019 LinkedIn study, they apply to 20% fewer jobs than men. However, when they apply, they’re 16% more likely to get hired. So, ladies, expand your range.
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 their efforts. Writing them consumes job seekers’ time and energy and usually produces an outsized amount of angst.
Thus, if you don’t want a cover letter, please be explicit about it!
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Image: cookie studio
Updated January 2021
© 2015 – 2021, 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 and general media outlets, including Forbes, Mashable, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur, the New York Times, USA Today, Time, CBS, the BBC, Lifehacker, Social Media Today, IT World, SmartBrief, and Business News Daily.
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