The question of whether to include a cover letter in your job application doesn’t have a single answer. Cover letters allow you to provide insight into your experience that a resume can’t communicate and to clearly articulate why you’re an ideal fit for a position. But if you’re sending out dozens of applications, writing a customized cover letter for each one can feel like an unnecessary hurdle at best and a waste of time at worst.
Hiring teams are also divided on the issue. Fifty-eight percent of professionals surveyed by Fishbowl said cover letters were unnecessary—but a survey by Arcadia University found that 83% of HR professionals considered them important in hiring decisions.
So, is writing a cover letter a valuable chance to stand out or a waste of your effort? The answer: it depends. Read on to learn when you should include a cover letter in your application versus when you can skip it—plus our tips on writing a cover letter that will grab a recruiter’s attention.
When To Include a Cover Letter
There are a few circumstances that upgrade a cover letter from a “nice to have” to a necessity. Here’s when you absolutely should include a cover letter in your job application:
- When it’s listed as a requirement. If a job listing specifically asks for a cover letter, there’s no way around it—you’ll want to write one. Failure to fulfill such a clear ask in the application process could likely put you out of the running.
- When you’re changing industries or roles. While there are countless reasons job seekers may decide to switch careers, nearly all of them are difficult to communicate through a resume. Writing a cover letter lets you explain your motivation for a professional pivot, list your transferable skills, and make a case for your candidacy.
- When you have a significant employment gap. Whether due to the pandemic, layoffs, or other circumstances, gaps in employment aren’t unusual—but they can be considered red flags if left unexplained. A cover letter allows you to proactively clarify any blank spaces on your resume.
- When someone has referred you to apply. If a current member of the company has referred you to the position, you’ll want to explain your relationship to them and why they believe you’ll be a great fit.
- When the role requires strong writing or communication skills. When hiring for a creative or communicative role, some teams view cover letters as an unofficial writing sample. Take the opportunity to showcase your skills!
When To Skip a Cover Letter
Just as important as knowing when to include a cover letter in your application is knowing when to skip one. Here are a few of those instances:
- When the job listing explicitly says not to. In this case, writing a cover letter could be seen as a failure to understand instructions.
- When there’s no clear way to upload one. If you find yourself repeatedly scanning the application for a place to attach your cover letter, it probably means the hiring team doesn’t want you to send it.
- When you don’t have time to write one. If a cover letter is listed as optional on a job application, it’s generally best to include one anyways. However, if you truly don’t have the time to write a great cover letter, apply without one—no cover letter is better than a poorly written one.
What To Include In Your Cover Letter
So, you’ve determined that you should include a cover letter in your application—now what? Below are a few elements to include in your cover letter to help you stand out from the crowd:
- An attention-grabbing opening sentence that will spark a recruiter’s interest.
- Insights about your candidacy that can’t be communicated through your resume alone—for instance, specific projects or achievements that are directly relevant to the role.
- Customization that uses language from the job posting itself.
- References to the specific employer and their industry—show you’ve done your homework in researching their company!
- An explanation of potential concerns such as an employment gap or nontraditional career path.
- A specific request for follow-up action such as an invitation to interview.
By paying close attention to whether the job you’re applying for requires a cover letter, and by including the above elements in the cover letters you do write, you can align with hiring teams’ expectations and differentiate yourself from the applicant pool.
Looking for additional support in your job search? A staffing recruiter can help you improve your resume and cover letter, fine-tune your interview skills, match you with relevant opportunities, and more. Explore our national staffing agency’s solutions today.
If you need help building a great team at your company, connect with the group at Harvard Resource Solutions. We provide the talented candidates your organization needs. Schedule a meeting with us at your earliest convenience.