During your job search, you've likely come across positions that ask for a cover letter and others that don't. So you might be wondering: Are cover letters necessary anymore?
The answer is a resounding "it depends." Here's what you need to know about cover letters, when it may be smart to submit one, and what they should include.
Why are cover letters important?
Your resume is probably doing a lot of heavy lifting. It lists your employment history, key achievements, and skills. So why would sending a cover letter be necessary?
"Today, a cover letter serves a precise purpose—when your resume can't tell the whole story," says Elaine Carpino, senior manager of talent acquisition at Marvin, a window and door manufacturer. She says candidates can use cover letters to add color to what a resume can't, including a willingness to relocate, explanation of employment gaps, and a better connection from your skills and experience to the open role.
While resumes and cover letters are both brief by design, a cover letter can emphasize why you're a top candidate for a particular position. Whether it's a personality that perfectly aligns with a company's brand voice, or life experiences that speak directly to the ideal candidate mentioned in the job description, a cover letter can be your place to shine.
As for highlighting skills, yes, your resume should do that already, but a cover letter gives you a chance to better relate those skills to the exact opportunity. For instance, if you want to transition from corporate America into the nonprofit sector, a cover letter may be where you go into detail on volunteer positions you've held.
You can also use a cover letter to highlight talents that could set you apart. For example, maybe you know the company where you're applying to work sponsors an industry conference where you've spoken. You can write about your experience at that event and how you could advance the company's position as a thought leader. For creative roles, a cover letter can showcase your writing savvy or design skills with custom letterhead.
And if your resume has a significant employment gap, your cover letter is a chance to offer a hiring manager more details. From pandemic layoffs to caring for an aging parent, don't be shy about explaining what you were doing in between jobs, especially if you can relate it back to the prospective employer's mission or cultural values. You may be able to find out more about that on their website, if not right in the job listing.
When is a cover letter necessary?
Obviously, if a job application specifically requires a cover letter, sending one is necessary. Without it, an applicant tracking system (the software some companies use to manage job applications) might not allow you to submit your application. Even if you're applying by email, an employer might reject you for not following instructions.
It's also wise to include a cover letter if you have a relationship with the hiring manager—or if a current employee or professional connection has referred you directly. That way, you can mention the referrer by name in the cover letter.
Pro tip: If you're sending your resume via email, the body of your email acts as your cover letter. You don't need to attach an additional file. Another related FYI: Emailing attachments without a prior email history may lead to getting sent to someone's spam filter.
What should a cover letter include?
Benjamin Farber, president of Bristol Associates, Inc., an executive search firm, says less is more when it comes to an effective cover letter. Time-crunched recruiters are more likely to respond to a brief cover letter personalized to the company and role. Farber suggests including key elements such as your interest in the role, what makes you an ideal fit for the organization, and anything that might set you apart from other potential applicants. What shouldn't take up space in your cover letter? Repeated stats from your resume, names of anyone the person reading your cover letter might not know, or details about experiences that you can't directly relate to the job at hand.
To get some ideas of what to put in your cover letter, review the job posting, the employer's website, and even recent news related to the employer or industry. You may find relevant, timely ways to connect your experience and enthusiasm for the job. For instance, if you enjoyed a recent news article featuring one of the company's executives, you could mention the interview or a quote and how it heightened your desire to join the company.
Another reason to let the job description inform your cover letter: It could tip you off about keywords to insert in your cover letter. Companies that use an applicant tracking system (ATS) can automate finding qualified candidates partly by searching for keywords in cover letters and resumes that match what hiring managers are seeking. If you're asked to click a link to apply to a job in a system, rather than by sending an email, it's a good bet that the employer uses an ATS. If you want an automated system to spot you, use words from the job description, especially any that repeat or are bolded, in the materials you submit. Those are likely to be the keywords the ATS is tracking. For instance, if a job ad mentions particular skills or experiences, such as managing budgets in a certain software, list these in your resume and, if there's more to say about it—perhaps because you saved your company thousands of dollars by using that software—consider calling that out in your cover letter too.
Could I use ChatGPT to write a cover letter?
Despite the fact that many employers use artificial intelligence (AI) to screen candidates, they may not be as open to applicants farming out cover letter writing to an AI chat assistant tool, such as ChatGPT. That's because doing so could make it tougher to assess the candidate's skills. In fact, some employers are using bot detectors to alert them when applicants used AI tools.* Even without the bot detector, candidates who use a program like ChatGPT run the risk of submitting a cover letter that's identical to another applicant's. A better idea if you're pressed for time or have writer's block: Start with an AI chat assistant and then significantly edit the cover letter to put it in your own voice.
What if the job posting says a cover letter is optional?
If you come across the phrasing "cover letter optional," should you include one with your application anyway? Probably. Doing so could put you above other candidates, especially if the position is with a sought-after company or in a highly competitive industry. Plus, it can demonstrate that you're willing to go the extra mile, an appealing quality in a job candidate.
When should you skip submitting a cover letter?
Submitting a cover letter doesn't make sense if the job posting specifically says not to include one or if there's no place in the online application system to attach one.
If you're short on time—say, because a company's deadline for applications is the same day you discovered the open role—you may be better off applying without a cover letter. That's because you don't want to rush writing one and make mistakes. "While your cover letter can't make you, it can break you," says Valerie Fontaine of SeltzerFontaine, LLC, a legal search firm. "If it's sloppy, even with a great resume, you risk losing the opportunity to interview." Instead, she suggests thoroughly proofreading all cover letters. Once is vital, but twice is better.