In the job hunt, some things have quietly started going away, like resumes on expensive paper or a “references available upon request” line. But what about the good old cover letter? Is that still a thing?
Yes…but (and there’s always a but) it’s not the important application factor that it used to be. The cover letter used to be the way to introduce yourself to the hiring manager, before diving right into the resume. But since the job application process has automized for most fields, the choice of whether or not to include a cover letter, and what type to include, are often up to you.
If I don’t include a cover letter, will that hurt me?
Most job applications these days are handled online, through an application-processing engine that essentially acts as a robot gatekeeper. And let’s face it, a cover letter is a very human thing. It’s a way to connect to the person reading it and show some personality and context alongside straight-up stats (your resume). So if you’re not connecting with a person and your cover letter is simply going into a database where it may or may not be read, it can feel like a wasted effort. And in fact, many companies don’t even ask for them at all or make them an optional upload when you submit your resume or a set application template.
If you opt out of sending a cover letter when it’s not required, you probably aren’t doing much damage to your chances. Your resume will just need to speak for itself. However, before you decide to skip the step, read carefully to make sure that it truly is optional.
As for the personal angle of a cover letter, remember that it’s a holdover from a time where hiring managers needed more context about you to help with hiring decisions. Now, thanks to the wonders of the internet, that same hiring manager can often find out baseline information about you from an online search, plus details about your work experience from your resume.
I do want to write a cover letter. How should I optimize it?
The first part is thinking seriously about your cover letter as part of your application package. Ideally, you’re customizing your resume for the job for which you’re applying. That means the cover letter has to be customized too. There’s little point to writing a cover letter that boils down to, “I’m applying for this job, here are my contact details, thx!” Think about who’s going to be reading it. Are you emailing your resume to someone? Your cover note should reflect that.
Most of your energy should be spent on your resume, but if you’re going to do the cover letter, after all, make sure it’s saying what you want to call out from your resume. The cover letter is still the chance to set your narrative, so include the highlights (your best skills, experience, or qualifications) to frame expectations for the resume. Everything you say in the cover letter should be backed up by cold, hard bullet points in the resume itself.
Don’t forget that applicant tracking systems are not only tracking your resume, they’re also scanning everything you submit. That means taking advantage of the keyword searches in your cover letter as well as your resume. Read the job description carefully. You don’t want to copy and paste it, but do sprinkle keywords and phrases throughout your cover letter (only if they’re relevant to your skills or experience, of course).
Cover letters may seem outdated, but like any other tool at your disposal in the job search, they can be very effective if you put the time and effort into making yours a focused and well-constructed supplement to your resume.