The cover letter is a contender for job seekers’ most hated part of the job search. Personally, when browsing job boards, I’ve always gravitated toward the postings that said “cover letter optional” or didn’t mention one at all—and I’m a writer. When you’re deep in a job hunt—particularly one where you feel like you’re throwing applications into a black hole—cover letters might feel pointless. It’s not like we’re mailing out our resumes anymore—so what is the letter covering? Does anyone read cover letters anymore? Are cover letters even necessary at all, or are they outdated?
I set out to find the answer by speaking to experts, combing through studies, and putting out a call to hiring managers and recruiters to find out how they handle cover letters when they’re making hires.
Does Anyone Still Read Cover Letters?
In a 2020 survey of 236 hiring managers and recruiters, ResumeGo found that 87% of respondents read cover letters. Only 13% did not. I got similar answers in my own research. The overwhelming majority of recruiters and hiring managers I heard from—folks who work across career functions and industries—told me they do still read cover letters in some capacity.
The most common answers I got were that hiring professionals read cover letters:
- For all qualified applicants
- For any candidates they’re considering moving to the next step of the hiring process
- For any candidates who are on the border of being moved forward
- For any candidates whose resumes raised questions for them
So if you’re submitting applications to any opening you come across and apply for a manager-level position as an entry-level candidate, or upload a teaching-focused resume for an accounting job, don’t be surprised if your cover letter gets skipped. For the most part, if your resume doesn’t even come close, no one is going to bother reading your cover letter, says Muse career coach Eliot Kaplan, who spent 18 years as VP of Talent Acquisition at Hearst Magazines before founding Eliot Kaplan Coaching.
This does mark a shift in how hiring professionals use cover letters, however. Traditionally, the cover letter was the cover page for your resume (hence the name), so its purpose was to convince the reader to look at your resume. Now, your resume usually (though not always) gets looked at first, and your cover letter is there to further persuade the reader to move you to the next round in the hiring process. So while cover letters are serving a different purpose now, they’re still being read and considered.
Unsurprisingly, everyone I heard from involved in hiring for jobs where writing, editing, and/or messaging is a key skill said they read and considered cover letters. For example, Glen Muñoz, who has been in marketing and operations for over 30 years, says that he reads all cover letters for candidates who meet the minimum requirements because the cover letter serves as a sample of their written communication skills, which are of course vital to whether or not you can do these jobs. Kaplan also said this was true in journalism.
Outside of these careers, cover letters are still widely read by the hiring professionals I heard from. Hiring managers, recruiters, and HR professionals across sales, finance, healthcare, accounting, customer service, and yes, even tech indicated that they read and considered at least some—if not all—candidates’ cover letters. “If I didn’t read [an applicant’s cover letter], there’s another reason that I’m not going to hire them,” says Karen Gordon, VP of Growth for Goodshuffle Pro, who hires for various roles including software developers. Those who said they read cover letters at all usually read them for all positions even if they’re hiring across different functions.
Employers also read cover letters across experience levels. “I have found the cover letter to be an important arsenal in a job seeker’s toolbox, even those seeking higher-up roles,” says Paul French, founder and managing director of Intrinsic Search, a recruiting firm specializing in executive positions for SaaS companies. At the other end of the spectrum, Kaplan says entry-level candidate’s cover letters are useful for hiring professionals to see how your education, part-time jobs, and other less traditional sources of experience connect to the job you’re applying for: “If you have less of a track record, you’re going to have a little more vamping,” and your cover letter is the place that it happens.
In my research, I noticed that the hiring professionals most likely to say that they skipped or skimmed cover letters to save time identified themselves as recruiters. Respondents also mentioned knowing other hiring professionals who did not read cover letters, most often recruiters. In its 2020 Recruiter Nation Report, based on a survey of 806 recruiters conducted by Zogby Analytics, Jobvite found that just 27% of recruiters consider cover letters when evaluating a job application.
And it makes sense. Often a recruiter’s primary job is to find and screen candidates for open positions, meaning they might be looking at hundreds of applications a day for a range of jobs. However, recruiters are usually not the only person seeing an application before a final hiring decision is made. They’re just the first step. So a recruiter not reading your cover letter doesn’t mean that someone else–like the hiring manager or a future member of your team—won’t. For example, tech recruiter and Muse career coach Steven Davis admits that he doesn’t read every cover letter as a recruiter, but as a coach, he still encourages his clients to “write a concise, enthusiastic cover letter” because he believes they’re valuable pieces of a job application that can help you land a later-round interview.
It’s important to note that while the 2020 Recruiter Nation report found that only 27% of recruiters considered cover letters in their decision, that’s up from 8% in 2017—a threefold increase in as many years. So the number of recruiters who read and consider cover letters is actually growing, not shrinking.
Do Cover Letters Help You Get a Job?
“For 80-90% of jobs I still believe in the cover letter,” Kaplan says. Cover letters help make the case for you as an applicant and can provide valuable information to recruiters and hiring managers, not only through their content but just through the fact that you took the time to write one at all.
In ResumeGo’s survey of recruiters and hiring managers, 65% of respondents said they are “materially influenced” by cover letters in their hiring decisions. ResumeGo also conducted a field experiment, submitting fake applications to over 7,000 job postings with either no cover letter (leaving the field blank or writing in “N/A” when needed), a generic cover letter, or a tailored cover letter that gave details on how the applicant matched the company culture and job description.
After 30 days, applications with tailored cover letters were 53% more likely to have gotten an interview callback than applications with no cover letter, and even generic cover letters were 17% better than no cover letter at all. Meaning, yes: Cover letters do still matter and they can help you get to the next round in the hiring process.
“One of the biggest takeaways was that tailored cover letters are far superior to generic cover letters when it comes to boosting a job applicant’s chances of being hired,” says Peter Yang, CEO of ResumeGo. Tailoring a cover letter doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch each time. You’re likely applying to a lot of similar jobs, so you might create a basic template for yourself, but add to it based on the job and company, Kaplan says. He estimates you can keep about two-thirds of your cover letter the same across most positions and customize the remaining third.
When Do You Absolutely Need a Cover Letter?
There are some situations where you should definitely include a cover letter or you’ll greatly increase the risk of being rejected when you otherwise might’ve had a chance.
Many job applications require a cover letter and in those cases, if you want a real shot, you have to write one whether you want to or not, Kaplan says. You don’t want the first message you send a prospective employer to be that you can’t or won’t follow directions.
You might also have some other signal that a cover letter is crucial to a specific role. Before I applied to my current job at The Muse, I saw that my future manager had tweeted out the job listing. In the tweet, she said to include a cover letter; they’d be using it to gauge my writing skills and it was a chance to sell myself for the role. So of course I wrote one! In addition to social media, this signal could also come from conversations with current and former employees of the company, or the job description might stress the cover letter’s importance or ask you to include certain information in it, even if the online application doesn’t have a mandatory slot for it.
But job seekers don’t always get a giant flashing neon sign declaring that a cover letter is crucial for a particular position. In some cases, the cue that a cover letter is extra important will come from your side. If you have any special situations surrounding your candidacy or there’s anything on your resume or application that needs additional context to be understood, writing a cover letter is really in your best interest. If there’s something on (or not on) your resume that might be a red flag to people reading, your cover letter can keep your application out of the rejection pile.
According to the experts, some special situations that can be explained by a cover letter include:
- Career transitions: If this is going to be your first job in a new of type role or a different industry, or if you’ve followed a non-linear career path, a cover letter can explain why you want this job and how your past experiences have prepared you for it. It’s also an opportunity to highlight how your transferable skills will help you in your next job. For example, Kaplan once coached a “management consultant who wanted to become a fighter pilot.” She wrote a compelling story about her background, how she overcame obstacles in her past jobs, and how she would do that in the air.
- Employment gaps: Whether this will be your first job after your employment gap or you have one further back on your resume that you’re worried might raise eyebrows, including a cover letter gives you an opportunity to explain.
- Out-of-area applications: If you’re moving and hoping to secure a job before you get there, you can explain that in a cover letter so hiring managers understand why your application is coming from a different geographic location.
- Personal connections to a company or job referrals: If someone in your network referred you to a job or you have another connection to the company, this goes in your cover letter, not on your resume, Kaplan says.
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether or not to write a cover letter. In the ResumeGo survey, only 26% of respondents said they “punished” or “deducted points” from candidates who didn’t include a cover letter when the job posting didn’t require one, and in its 2018 Job Seeker Nation Study, Jobvite found that only 45% of respondents had submitted a cover letter for their current or most recent job. So you can definitely get a job without a cover letter. But ask yourself this: Why would you skip out on the chance to make your application even stronger?