Are cover letters still necessary in 2021?

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

What you have gathered from a Googling spree and even hearsay about the importance of cover letters may be more confusing than helpful. The information (and opinions) on this age-old question is varied. As you forage for answers, these thoughts compound your doubts: “Does anyone even read them?”

…or if you are genuinely sceptical: “I’ve written everything in my resume, why do I still write a cover letter? I'm not sure if it'll help my application.”

…or you may be clouded with ‘reasons’ not to write it: “I dread it, it’s so time-consuming, and I think it’s wholly unnecessary.”

Avoid assuming the importance of your cover letter to employers

When you are navigating these thoughts, you are assuming that the employer wouldn’t take time to screen what took you hours to complete, or that you’ve thoroughly profiled yourself in your resume and they would certainly register your goodness-of-fit, even without a cover letter.

Important or not, there is no sure-fire way to guesstimate if employers value your cover letter. Your priority then is to puzzle out why you’re writing it, and why employers may take to it and then identify when it is important before you commence your letter writing.

Why write cover letters?

In recruitment, different stakeholders have varying interests in cover letters.

As a job-seeker

  • It is exactly like breaking the ice; only, you’re interacting with the employer by storytelling your craft. Through brief anecdotes, articulate your qualities and enterprises. By chronicling your profile, your personality leaps off the page. This draws employers in and builds the bridges between you and them.

  • You’re connecting your resume’s hard facts with your prospective responsibilities and moving forward, to the company’s goals. It is your voice to flaunt but remember, your cover letter isn’t an essay about your resume.

  • Your cover letter remedies your resume’s shortcomings. Whether it’s employment or education irregularities, short-term or contract positions, and even peppered interests in various roles, a good cover letter will lower the employer’s doubts and eyebrow-raises.

For interns

  • Your cover letter relays the objectives, learning outcomes and skills that you’re committed to acquiring. Remember, companies don’t just fill positions, they’re also fostering talents and improving employees’ learning curves.

From the employers’ perspective

  • Your resume is a fact database, so they’d appreciate knowing why and how these data points can add value to the company. Your cover letter signposts your resume’s information and explains them concisely.

  • A cover letter may display red flags that wouldn’t appear in a well-manicured resume. These include typos, grammatical errors, and even general salutations (i.e. Dear Sir/Madam). They reveal if you’ve researched extensively for the role, or if you’re meticulous. Some employers rely on this to gauge your work ethic, habits and methodologies.

  • They may grasp your motivations through the cover letter’s tone. If you’re thanking them profusely, especially for inconspicuous reasons, the employer may smell that you’re in dire need for a job. If your resume shows that you haven’t been employed in 6 months, your cover letter upholds their suspicions.

  • Viewing cover letters as a differentiator. If they’ve received two comparable resumes, and they’re only interviewing one, a good cover letter may nudge them to pick you.

  • In smaller organisations, employees leave a bigger footprint. Your cover letter helps the company determine how well you’d gel with them. Furthermore, if they do not receive many applications, a good cover letter stands out. Conversely, if they receive many applications and need to shortlist quickly, they may be looking at a checklist and ignoring cover letters. This is particularly so when the application mandates the submission of a cover letter.

Cover letters meet varying needs for different people. You may choose to write one, depending on your interests and/or the employer’s needs. However, there are situations that definitely call for it, and others that don’t.

When is a cover letter important?

When a cover letter is specifically requested, you have to provide one. Even if it’s a seemingly uncomplicated role, always heed the employer’s instructions. If you don’t, your application may be cut. A small detour, but please follow *all* instructions in the job application process.

In specific roles or industries like marketing, writing and related fields, parade your flair with words and show how you organise and present ideas in your cover letter. If you’re lacking a robust portfolio, your cover letter can boost your application.

When you are writing a cold email, include a prospecting cover letter. When you are prospecting for opportunities that aren’t listed, your cover letter tells the employer why you’re interested in them.

When is a cover letter not as important?

If a job posting specifically states that a cover letter isn’t required, don’t feel compelled to write one. Follow the employer’s instructions, or they may have the impression that you’ve disregarded the application’s requirements.

If it’s optional and if the need for a cover letter doesn’t appear anywhere in the job posting, it is up to you to decide whether it is important to your application.

To work around any ambiguities, do not craft a separate document, and treat your e-mail or application’s free-form text feature as your cover letter. Provide what you’d write in your cover letter.

In some cases, your cover letters (and resumes) are filtered through an Application Tracking System (ATS). This means that they’re not going to be read by anyone. If you do write one, use keywords in the job description, so that it’ll eventually land into warmer hands.

Job aggregators like Indeed require employers to pay before they view applications. Pause on that cover letter, and send them into hands that surely receive them. You may email to HR directly by locating them on LinkedIn or alternatively, you can apply for the same role on other portals.

The bottom line

Writing a cover letter won’t set you back in your application. But that is only if you do it right, and for the right reasons. Ultimately, when weighing its importance, determine your priorities and the employer’s interests. If you choose not to provide one, invest the time in your resume and write it spotlessly.

More importantly, a cover letter doesn’t have to make or break your application. Rollback your expectations, and focus on meeting your objectives in your application.

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