When you need to use a cover letter, and when you don’t

cover letter
Rachael Brown, HRM Online


written on June 30, 2016

In the face of high-volume recruitment practices and parsing software, the conventional cover letter looks positively archaic. Are they really necessary?

Once the dynamic duo of job applications, the CV and cover letter are having an identity crisis.

Nearly two-thirds of recruiters say cover letters are not an important factor when they review applications, according to a recent survey. It’s demise can be attributed to three major players in today’s job market: the speed, technology and volume of recruitment practices these days.  

A majority of companies, especially medium- to large-sized ones, recruit online and receive applications through software systems designed to screen candidates and ‘thin the herd’. Rather than taking a resume as a whole, these programs search and parse applications, looking for particular keywords or phrases.

Add to this the sheer volume and scale of the candidate search – where one job opening might attract hundreds of applications – and it becomes clear there is no quick or efficient way to do each cover letter justice.

While many have declared the cover letter dead, there are some who argue it still has value. The topic started a debate on AHRI’s LinkedIn group page, with members weighing in on when you should use a cover letter in the recruitment process, and when your time is better spent elsewhere.

Burden of proof

In the past few years, more human resource professionals, hiring managers and recruiters have declared cover letters persona non grata.

Many who were in favour of doing away with the cover letter said so because it’s bulky and time consuming. “There are only so many ways you can say what you can do, what you’ve experienced and what you’re good at on your resume,” says Karen Rodriguez. “I think this makes cover letters obsolete.”

A recruiter rarely spends more than a minute on a resume when screening candidates, points out Rob Hutchison. And Sheryl Grimwood says it’s unlikely that she would read a cover letter, as it’s subjective; she would rather rely on the resume to demonstrate skills match, and the interview to show the candidate’s attitude and capabilities. Mark Bradley agreed, and says it’s easy for people to make a cover letter “say almost anything.”

The cover letter is where candidates can expand on their skills and qualifications, but some contributors pointed out that not everyone knows how to make the most of this opportunity. “The idea of a cover letter is good, but I fear the whole point is lost on many applicants who don’t know how to sell themselves properly,” says Neil Phillips. “They tend to use multiple superlatives and thus spoil their application.”

Right time, right place

Other points of view were that it depends entirely on the role and how far along the candidate is in the selection process. Many said that although they initially rely on resumes to get the meat of a candidate’s experience and skills, a great cover letter can be what seals the deal later on.

“I have often used them as a last criteria when two or more resumes are similar,” says Khadeja Sattar. “The one with the better cover letter will get my attention first.”

“I think they’re important, but too often applicants submit generic cover letters or cover letters that are for different positions,” adds Taryn Bennett. “It helps screen out those candidates who have done their research and demonstrated attention to detail.”

Many respondents to the discussion focused on how cover letters can be a showcase for good and persuasive writing.

“A key criteria for many roles is well-developed or excellent written and verbal communication skills,” says Dianne Southouse. “A cover letter is an opportunity for the applicant to demonstrate this, and for the employer to assess and gain some insight into the applicant.”

Perhaps this question of whether cover letters are still relevant or not actually plays into a larger debate about human resources as a profession. As one contributor Marcus Champ put it: “Both the question and many of the responses reflect why the debate about the relevancy and value of human resources continues. It should not matter what you believe or like. It should only matter on what basis a cover letter contributes to a selection process and how valid it is as a tool.”

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below, or contribute to the discussion on AHRI’s LinkedIn page here.

Comments have been edited for publishing.

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11 thoughts on “When you need to use a cover letter, and when you don’t

  1. Cover letters are very helpful when you ask candidates to write it against a job apec. Very useful when you are under the gun preparing candidate reports.

  2. I support cover letters in most situations. This is mainly because of the argument stated above by Dianne Southouse. If the job involves any need for the occupant to be able to write decent English, then the cover letter is a way of separating the wheat from the chaff. In this day an age where there are more and knowledge jobs and less and less physical jobs, the need for a decent cover letter increases to my mind. In fact some of the arguments that some people have against them are the very reasons they are worth keeping. For example, if a person cannot sell themselves in an appropriate manner and with a good choice of language for the job involved, then a cover letter may well be a good way to find that out. Or, if someone raves on about themselves in immodest glowing terms ad nauseum, then that may well be a good signal that you don’t want this person in your team. So why not give potentially inappropriate applicants enough rope to hang themselves (figuratively speaking of course !). Yes I do know that some professions (to rename nameless) do like a lot of BS but others do not. So what is said is also an indication of how much the applicant knows about the nuances of your particular industry (private or public sector) and so how they sell themselves to you is also a measure of how their judgement stacks up. Obviously, if the job is purely a physical one or so hi-tech that the person will not have to communicate with anyone at all, then maybe give the cover letter a miss. But for most situations I would continue to argue for retention of the cover letter.

    Arthur Shacklock

    1. I agree with most of your comments but I’m just wondering what your position would be if you were evaluating cover letters that were not written by the applicant but by a professional cv and coverletter writer? How do we evaluate between the ‘sincere’ attempt by a person who may be excellent at their job who writes their own cover letter and cv and the applicant who has their cv and cover letter prepared by a specialist? Is this a fair way to compare? Is there a way to address this?

  3. Cover letters are still useful but should be kept concise and not just repeat what is stated in the rest of the application . It is an opportunity for the candidate to reveal their communication skills and own personal style. It is also an opportunity to state something that may be unique to the application such as that the applicant may be on holidays at this time .

  4. Am I the only naive person who thinks this is a terrible way to find the best people for an organisation?
    “Rather than taking a resume as a whole, these (software) programs search and parse applications, looking for particular keywords or phrases.”
    Keywords and Phrases. Would you pick a sports team in the same way? Perhaps find a partner if they use the right keywords?
    At a time when organisations are focusing on developing their capacity to innovate, how does this actually help? There is something very sad about the use of technology that benefits the recruiting industry at the expense of the expertise and experience that is ignored.

    1. Ed, you are not alone and I love your analogies about the sports team and the partner – although I suppose that’s what speed-dating was all about!
      I’ve been working in HR for a while now (won’t say how long just in case someone guesses my age and their software program weeds me out!!) and for me, HR is still ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. Good grief, what have we as people practitioners become if we use a computer program ‘to thin the herd’? Think of all those great skills, all that knowledge and diverse capability we are throwing away untapped because we can only spare a few short moments from our day to review an application that has had time and effort put in to get just right! For me, that says so much about how the people might be valued in a particular organisation. I do appreciate that large organisations probably don’t have a bunch of minions sitting around reading applications and neither do the recruiters they use, but perhaps it’s time we reinvested in the HUMAN side of HR instead of in expensive, exclusive software. Perhaps too there is a hole in the market for just such an organisation……

      1. I totally agree – and that’s why it is SO IMPORTANT to have people focused on recruitment, and not as part of a wider HR role (especially as companies grow). It pays to invest the time to properly screen and hire…. people make a company great and are the single most important asset!!

  5. As a rule I find cover letters do not add any value to the selection process UNLESS they are able to provide additional information relevant to the application. For example if someone is applying for a position for which is obviously more junior than roles currently/previously held; or applying for a role interstate/internationally; or meets only some of the key criteria etc. There are sometimes very good explanations for these scenarios and explaining in a cover letter provides additional crucial information to a recruiter/prospective employer. If the reasons are not made known then it is likely their application will be discounted immediately. If someone applies for an interstate role and advises in the cover letter that they are relocating for family reasons then I am more likely to consider the application as generally remote candidates are not as attractive as local candidates. When I read a CV if I have immediate questions that are not able to be answered in the brief first pass of the CV/cover letter then they likely end up on the Not Now pile. So yes, I strongly encourage candidates to provide a cover letter when some aspect of their application requires explanation. They are not needed if simply regurgitating the CV/Job Ad.
    My 2c worth.

  6. Thank you Judy Hitchcock. You are so correct – HR is ALL ABOUT THE PEOPLE. The HR profession needs more people like Judy who take time to consider the human element of recruitment rather than depending on a computer to do their work. ‘Thin the herd’ is such a derogatory expression and only serves to denigrate the profession.

  7. As an ex-recruiter in an agency, I used to mostly disregard the cover letters and focus on the CVs… however as someone who has been more involved in internal recruitment, cover letters are the single thing that makes a candidate stand out. Are they tailored? Do they demonstrate and understanding of our company? Do I know what this person is looking for?
    CVs should be all about the professional (skills and achievements), but for me personally, cover letters should be about the person (culture, goals, interest in company and role). Anyone who sends a generic cover letter, without even being addressed to a name or company, goes straight to the bottom of the pile. We’re a small company (circa 60 staff) and we only hire those who want to work for us specifically. Culture / people is something we won’t compromise on.

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