We’ve all seen it on job applications: cover letter optional. But while some of us shout for joy when we see that line, others of us wring our hands with worry, wondering if we'll be docked proverbial brownie points by the recruiter or hiring manager if we hit send without attaching that optional document.
So we set out to put your worried minds at ease, asking career experts whether optional cover letters really are optional — and what you can expect to happen if you don’t send one.
Why would a company say that a cover letter is optional?
The application clearly says a cover letter is optional. And that begs the question: why leave the choice of whether to attach one up to the job candidate? Is it some kind of twisted trick?
It’s not — exactly. “If they say it's optional, they may be vetting out who's truly motivated for the position by who takes the time to compose a cover letter,” explains career coach Hallie Crawford. Or, the company may not have been impressed in the past with applicants’ cover letters, so they’re reducing their own load by not requiring them, job search expert Hannah Morgan says. “Leaving the decision to submit a cover letter up to the candidate could be a company’s way of signaling that it isn’t that important to them,” she explains.
So, should you bother to write one?
Yes. Even if a cover letter is optional, any applicant who takes the time to write and submit one anyway — especially a thoughtful, well-written, spell-checked letter — will make a good impression, both experts agree. “When the majority of people take the easy way out, and don’t submit a cover letter, then writing one can make a difference, if it gets read,” Morgan says. “It takes time and effort to explain why you are interested in the role,” she says, and “when that’s done well, it may be the differentiator that gets the candidate the interview.”
Another reason to submit an optional cover letter? “A cover letter is a great way to explain to the hiring manager why you would be a great fit for the job,” says Crawford. “It's also a way to show them that you are willing to accomplish tasks that aren't required but still important. It shows them you're motivated and interested in the position, and it's a chance to sell yourself with information and statistics beyond what's listed on your resume.”
What should you include in an optional cover letter?
When we said there’s no point in sending a less-than-exceptional optional cover letter, we meant it. “A well-written cover letter does two things: it explains why the candidate is interested in the role and highlights why they are a good fit for the job,” explains Morgan. And that can require a lot of time and research on your part. For example, “let’s say the company has a new product coming out, but it isn’t mentioned in the job posting,” says Morgan. “In reading the company’s press releases and talking with insiders, the candidate discovers that the job would be supporting the new product. The candidate should mention this in the cover letter and if he or she has experience supporting a new product launch, that information would also be extremely important to mention.”
But that doesn’t mean you can blather on and on in the letter. “Writing a concise message is an enviable skill,” says Morgan. “With attention spans getting shorter every day, less is more. The letter should be succinct, yet still include [at least] three paragraphs.”
What if you decide not to send an optional cover letter?
Sometimes you’re crunched for time. Sometimes, you just can’t find the right words. And so, when you see the chance to not write a customized cover letter, you’re going to take it. (We get it.) But don't worry — making this move doesn’t necessarily set you up to fail as an applicant.
Here’s what you can do instead: the next time you’re on social media, see if the company is too. If they are, mention them or tag them in the next post or tweet you compose, suggests Morgan. “Don’t dismiss social media, as many recruiters are searching social media profiles as part of the candidate review process,” she says. Then, make sure your online portfolio or LinkedIn account are up-to-date and optimized “with embedded media and links to career achievements like promotions, presentations, awards or articles you’ve written,” she says. This way, you can still make a splash.