Does a resume need a cover letter?

Does a Resume Need a Cover Letter?

Does a resume need a cover letter? It’s a good question.

Career experts and writers have long reflexively said, “Yes!” but employer survey data doesn’t wholly support their answer.

Also, I’m not a fan of cover letters. As a recruiter of 25+ years, I:

  1. Didn’t require them.
  2. Rarely read them.
  3. More often disqualified candidates because of their letters than advanced them.

I always found the resume a meatier, more comprehensive read than most cover letters. Considering that, if you’re going to write one, try to craft an opportunity letter. They’re awesome if you can pull them off.

What Does the Data Say?

As mentioned above, you can find a lot of opinions on the necessity of cover letters.

However, I have a deep analytical streak, so I decided to look for some proper research on the topic.

I found two reliable post-Recession studies from the last five years.

In case you’re wondering, “post-Recession” matters because potential employers could demand ridiculous job requirements during the years of double-digit unemployment. They can’t do that when unemployment is under 7% and they often can’t find the perfect person for the job.

So, moving on, let’s look at the studies:

SHRM Study — 2014

The first study was published by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) in  2014. The findings showed that 78% of respondents didn’t care much about cover letters. I was glad to see I wasn’t alone.

SHRM cover letter survey

The most interesting questions and answers reported were as follows:

1. Only 22% of all respondents said applicants make a mistake by omitting written cover letters from their job applications.

2. 33% of respondents in organizations with one to 499 employees wanted to see a cover letter.

3. 17% of respondents in organizations with 500 or more employees wanted to see a cover letter.

Beyond organization size, the participants’ organization type mattered:

1. Only 20% of private-sector respondents wanted to see a cover letter.

2. 34% of government respondents wanted to see a cover letter.

Later Studies

I’ve tracked new surveys and studies since I wrote the original version of this post in 2015. The reported requirements range from 22% to 65% and depend heavily on organization size and type.

The most recent study was a look at cover letter requirements in technology industry job postings published by The Ladders in 2019. They found that cover letter demands varied by company size:

  1. 48% of tech giants wanted a cover letter.
  2. 55% of mid-sized companies wanted one.
  3. 65% of start-ups wanted to see a cover letter.
tech company cover letter requirements

From The Ladders

So, What’s a Job Seeker to Do About Cover Letters?

As you might have noticed, the data doesn’t really answer the question, “Does a resume need a cover letter?”

However, it does give us some job market guidelines:

  1. First, the smaller or less progressive the organization — include a cover letter.
  2. Most important, you miss every shot you don’t take. If you don’t want to write a letter, apply anyway. You have a 35% to 78% chance of it not being a problem.

Don’t Shoot Yourself in the Foot — Common Cover Letter Mistakes

If you send a letter, run it through the free version of Grammarly to fix your spelling and grammar. Then, check for these stunningly common errors:

  1. Mis-addressing a cover letter.
  2. Mis-spelling manager.
  3. Confusing phase and faze.
  4. Confusing piqued and peaked.
  5. Writing run-on sentences.

Regardless of what you write, don’t rely on anyone reading your cover letter, including the applicant tracking system (ATS). Thus, be sure you have reviewed the job description and addressed as many of the skills and experience requirements in your resume as you can.

Meeting the Job Specs — What the Data Says

However, if you have an experience shortfall, you might apply anyway. According to a 2016 RiseSmart study, only 20% of employers demand a near-perfect match with their “requirements.”

A 2018 Talent Works study found you’re as likely to get an interview by matching 50% of the job requirements as a person who matches 90%. They found no incremental gain in interviews secured past a 50% match.

matching job requirements

From Talent Works

Now, ladies, please pay special attention. According to a 2019 LinkedIn study, you apply to 20% fewer jobs than men do. But you’re 16% more likely to get hired. Thus, if you’re in a job search, throw a few more letters and resumes over the transom. Take a few risks if the job looks good. This happened to one women when she “manned up.”

Recruiter Call to Action

And, for recruiters reading this post, wouldn’t it be wonderful, if you don’t care about cover letters, for you to say so? Many recruiters automatically write, “Send your resume and cover letter to…” without thinking about what they’re demanding.

To be fair, please don’t put your applicants through the wringer on this if you don’t plan to read their efforts. Writing a cover letter consumes job seekers’ time and energy and usually produces an outsized amount of angst.

When I recruited, I didn’t read cover most cover letters, so I didn’t ask for them.

Here’s the language I used:

“Please send your MS Word .doc resume to Donna Svei, Executive Search Consultant.”

I wish I had said:

“Please send your MS Word .doc resume (no cover letter needed) to Donna Svei, Executive Search Consultant.”

Cover Letter Samples

Finally, you probably want samples. I’ve already linked above to a post regarding opportunity letters (my favorite cover letters).

You can see another good cover letter sample here. It provides a simple formula designed to engage a recruiter or a hiring manager with your candidacy.

In closing, keep your communications as short and sweet as possible. Doing so limits opportunities for you to make faux pas that will kill your chance for an interview. Plus, it simplifies cover letter formatting.

Photo Courtesy of Norwood Fleet
Updated August 2019

© 2015 – 2019, Donna Svei. All rights reserved.

Comments 17

  1. If the company’s online application software gives you the opportunity to upload one or more additional documents in addition to your resume, are you making a mistake by not using that opportunity to upload a cover letter? I have encountered several such sites where I will always wonder if the addition of a cover letter might have afforded me the opportunity to get an interview.

  2. Post
    Author

    Hi John,

    It’s up to the idiosyncrasies of whoever is reviewing your application. Some recruiters and hiring managers think cover letters are uber important. Like me, others don’t read them at all. (That’s why I loved the 2014 SHRM survey; it seems I’m no longer in the minority on that!)

    Many applicant tracking systems only scan the resume. If you get selected by the ATS for human review, then that person might or might not read your cover letter. If your cover letter gets read and it is fabulous, then it might help your candidacy. Sadly, most cover letters are poorly written and do more damage than anything to candidates’ prospects.

    I think you would be better off uploading a printout of your LinkedIn recommendations. Unless, of course, they’ve specifically asked for a cover letter. Then give them one.

    Thank you for the terrific question!

    Donna

  3. Great article. I visit a class that is given by the local unemployment office, and I never know what to tell them about writing cover letters. I am going to use this information.

    I typically don’t read the cover letter unless i need more information. For example if the person lives in another state, I want there to be something in the cover letter about their plan/reason for relocating.

  4. Very good point about explaining a relo. I love it when comments enrich what I’ve written! Thank you.

  5. I’m with you Donna…I think cover letters are a huge conundrum for job seekers. Most of the recruiters I know report that they do not read them, at least not on the initial review, unless they have specifically asked for applicants to submit one. Still, others request them and use them purely as a screening tool–a way to screen out applicants to narrow the pool. On the one hand, I think that’s unfair for applicants (and also not a good way to limit the applicant pool). On the other hand, communication is such a critical skill for almost any job these days, so I can somewhat understand the thought process. I have generally told clients that unless you are a particularly strong writer, or the ad requires one, or you have something you need to clarify/explain (career change, absence from the workforce, etc.), you are probably not going to be penalized for not submitting one. At the end of the day, recruiters are pragmatic–if your resume is outstanding, they’ll call if they think you’re a contender.

  6. I would agree that a poorly written cover letter can damage your prospects, but I would always like to know in advance how well the applicant can express themselves. If they can’t express themselves well in a cover letter why think that they’ll be better able to do so in the job?
    I think the cover letter can also give you a “feel” for what the applicant is like and how well they may fit within the team. I would always read a cover letter, after all you’ve presumably given the job requirements/specifications in the advertisement and the CV should deal with those.
    I’ve frequently dealt with 100+ applications for one job, almost all with somewhat similar CV’s. The cover letter has usually been the deciding factor for who gets interviewed.

  7. Hi Brendan,

    I’ve done searches for senior execs where the majority of cover letters would disqualify the applicants if I chose to use their letters as part of the assessment process.

    Rather, if someone will be in a position to delegate most of their writing/editing responsibilities, I don’t use their letters against them. I look at what will matter in their job performance and focus on those factors.

    I do, however, expect their resume to cover all the relevant points and make a convincing argument that they’re a good candidate for the job at hand. If the resume is up to snuff, I don’t need them to connect any dots for me in a cover letter. From an efficiency perspective, I appreciate getting 100% of the info I need in their resume.

    All that said, you make a valuable point. Thank you for sharing it.

    Donna

  8. Good idea on including the part about “we don’t read cover letters” – just may include that on the next job posting!

    Interesting findings. The cover letter may be dying and in it’s place will remain social profiles and online portfolios.

    Connor

  9. Interesting! I’ve long felt that sending a cover letter to a recruiter was a waste of time. Yes, Donna, please include (cover letter optional) in your job postings. I wonder if the data is similar for hiring managers?

  10. Thank you Paul.

    I would guess that even fewer hiring managers read cover letters, but I don’t have any data on that.

    Donna

  11. Donna, I basically agree with you about it being a mistake not to send a cover letter, however, in my opinion it needs to be a cover letter that is not overly wordy; applicants often feel the need to add fluff to a cover letter, and this can hurt their chances of having their resume read. I am a food headhunter with 30 years experience in both foods and consumer packaged goods recruiting, and that is my view in my industry.

  12. Donna, perhaps you could indicate what additional information could be included in a Cover Letter other than the Accomplishments noted in the resume, which many advisors suggest shouldn’t be regurgitated in a cover letter, thanks.

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