I regularly get asked by clients and job candidates if cover letters still matter these days when applying for jobs. Do you really need to include a cover letter? Do hiring managers or recruiters even bother to read them? Does a cover letter make any difference?
In short, yes, you should include a cover letter if the option exists.
Hiring managers not only read cover letters but also still expect them. According to ResumeLab, from polling over 200 hiring professionals, they found more than seven in 10 recruiters expect to receive a cover letter even if they mark them as “optional” in job ads. And yes, including a cover letter can help differentiate you from other candidates. ResumeLab says 83% of HR professionals think cover letters are essential when making hiring decisions. And over one-third (36 percent) of hiring professionals start the evaluation process with the cover letter.
So while not including a cover letter may not be a deal breaker or absolutely necessary, leaving out a cover letter creates some risk, namely around coming across as a candidate who isn’t willing to put in the effort that others have. It also increases the risk that the hiring manager will think you simply fired off your CV/resume to a bunch of employers, which is much easier to do than writing a customized cover letter for the specific role you’re applying to.
As a former hiring manager myself, I often found myself focused on ruling candidates out rather than ruling candidates in, namely because hiring mistakes are much more costly than passing on a candidate that could be a decent fit. When hiring someone onto a team, false positives are a bigger, long-term headache than false negatives that may elongate the hiring process. Reviewing a cover letter is one way to quickly figure out whether a candidate is serious about applying for a role.
Therefore, including a cover letter, at the very least, signals you’ve made effort to include one. I think of your resume as the “what” behind your candidacy while your cover letter is the “why.” When written well, a cover letter can further reinforce your personal pitch as a candidate, personalize your application, and clarify why you’re the right person for a role.
Key principles for a good cover letter
I recommend you follow 3 key principles when writing your cover letter:
- Personalize it- ensure you have customized the skills you highlight, the reasons you’re a great fit for the target role, and why you’re excited about the company. Hiring managers can easily sniff out when a cover letter has been copied & pasted.
- Be selective– selectively promote the top skills and experiences you feel are more relevant to the specific role you’re applying to. Do not try to be all things to all people or you’ll stand out to no one.
- Keep it short- most recruiters skim resumes for just 7.4 seconds before moving on to another application, so you can imagine they don’t spend a ton of time reading cover letters either. Ensure your cover letter is kept to 1 page max.
Recommended structure for cover letter
Every cover letter should be unique to the role and company you’re applying to. Resist the temptation to just cut & paste the same cover letter, simply swapping out the role title and company name. With that said, I’m a big fan of having a rough template in place with placeholders so you don’t have to start from scratch every single time.
To organize the body of your cover letter, I recommend you follow this 3-paragraph framework:
- Paragraph 1- Why them? Name the role you’re applying to. Explain why you’re interested in the role and organization.
- Paragraph 2- Why you? Explain what you can bring to the role followed by a bulleted list of 3 key, relevant skills you have.
- Paragraph 3- Next steps. Give a recap of why you feel you’re a solid fit for the opportunity. Finish with administrative next steps.
Content to include in each section
Paragraph #1: Why them?
Explain exactly why you are applying to this specific role. This does a three things. First, it signals you’ve taken the time to research the role prior to applying. Second, it lays the foundation for the narrative you’ll capture in the next paragraph about why this role is an attractive next move for you. Third, it provides some narrative and intention behind your interest in this specific role, which is hard to convey in a resume alone.
Enthusiasm matters in the hiring process, especially when a hiring manager is combing through a stack of applications. So it doesn’t hurt to convey how genuinely excited you are about the opportunity. Just avoid using exclamation marks, which can feel a bit unprofessional in the context of a cover letter 😉. For example:
I’m applying for [role title] at [organization’s name]. The role stood out to me because [insert specific reason here]. As someone who’s [briefly capture professional summary], I’d be excited to [capture how you would add value given your experience]. I’d also welcome an opportunity to work at [organization’s name] [explain reasons why opportunity’s attractive].
Paragraph #2: Why you
This paragraph creates the bridge between your experiences and the role you’re applying to, further building a narrative around why you would be a good fit for this role. While a resume provides a snapshot of what you did across all your roles and responsibilities, this selling paragraph is your opportunity to shape the key highlights of your personal brand and how you want to position yourself as a candidate.
Be selective and specific. Decide on three key skills and experiences you want to lead with as a candidate. You can even use bullets if you wish, which force you to be clear about the skill headings. While you certainly possess other skills too, putting a stake in the ground allows you to build a clearer personal brand rather than a jack of all trades, which often results in you getting lost in the shuffle.
Remember to focus on what you bring to the table and why you feel these skills position you well to add value and address the issues or problems the organization’s trying to address. Too often, candidates are focused on what’s in it for them, so communicating exactly what value you can add to the role is way to separate yourself from others. For example:
My understanding of what’s required for this role are [list top 3 requirements you identified from job description]. My [X] years of experience managing [summary of functional role] equip me to hit the ground running and [list 1-2 key objectives identified in role description]. Specifically:
- [Skill 1]: [Example of relevant project and results achieved].
- [Skill 2]: [Example of relevant project and results achieved].
- [Skill 3]: [Example of relevant project and results achieved].
Paragraph #3: Recap, with next stepsDuring my days as a brand marketer, we were taught that no ad is complete without leaving target consumers with a key takeaway and clear call to action. Similarly, a cover letter is a key piece of marketing for yourself. So you want to leave the hiring manager with a clear headline summary of why you’re right for the role and why you’re so enthusiastic about the opportunity. Finish with the specific action you hope they’ll take related to your candidacy.
“My extensive experience [summarize relevant experiences] position me well to succeed this this role that requires [key skills desired in job description] at [organization’s name]. I look forward to hopefully having an opportunity to interview for the role, explain why I’m a good fit for your organization, and address any questions you have for me related to my skills and experiences. You can reach me at [phone number] or [email] at your convenience. Thanks for your time.”
Before hitting send, you’ll of course want to ensure you’ve done a thorough spell check and grammar check. While errors aren’t immediate deal-breakers, they don’t tend to create a positive first impression, especially if a role requires attention to detail.
Writing a cover letter can’t hurt, and often helps
While cover letters are not the end all be all, nor do they make or break your candidacy, taking the time to write one provides you with the opportunity to further reinforce your personal brand and unique skillset. Just as a brand would jump on the opportunity to have a free billboard to market their product to consumers, you absolutely should take the time to create this additional piece of marketing collateral for yourself as a job candidate, especially when competing for a role in a crowded hiring marketplace.