Do I need a cover letter when applying for a job? That was the question posed to more than 13,000 career professionals across several industries via a recent survey on Fishbowl, Glassdoor’s online community for professionals. The answer is complicated.
More than half of all respondents said no, 32% said maybe, and less than 10% said yes. You may think a resume without a cover letter is a non-starter. But a conversation with hiring managers and recruiters tells a different story: For many positions, that formal introduction is a nice-to-have rather than a necessity. The decision to include a cover letter or avoid submitting one may vary based on the type of position you’re applying for.
What's a cover letter: A brief history
For four generations, job-seekers were told that a cover letter was a necessary part of the application process. In the 1930s, cover letters were used to explain the denser contents of mailed documents. But The New York Times was the first to use the term in the context of employment in a 1956 job ad.
The use of the cover letter — and resumes, for that matter — grew as the American workforce shifted from agricultural work at the end of the 19th century to industrial and office work by the end of World War II. Job seekers suddenly had to explain their education, skills, and experience.
In the days when applicants actually mailed a resume in response to a job posting, (which was usually printed in a newspaper), the cover letter was a polite way of saying, “This is who I am, and this is the job I’m applying for.”
A library of books have been written since then explaining how to write attention-grabbing cover letters, but they’ve gradually become less relevant. With the rise of internet job-listing platforms like Glassdoor, Indeed, and LinkedIn, job applications are no longer sorted by hand in a mailroom — they’re automatically grouped by job posting. In most companies, human resources departments are no longer the first filter for resumes; that task belongs to algorithms.
The pros and cons of cover letters
The recruiters in our Fishbowl thread about cover letters had strong opinions on the topic, ranging from, “I will go out of my way to talk to someone who took the time to write a cover letter” to “I hate them, personally.” The majority of respondents said they don’t like them, and requiring them is outdated. Recruiters are slightly more likely to read cover letters for higher-level roles, compared to entry-level positions.
For more senior positions, jobs in academia, or openings that require strong writing skills, a cover letter could help you stand out from the competition. Even if it goes unread, the process of drafting a cover letter can help you organize your thinking about the opening as you navigate the interview process.
You may also want to include a cover letter if you need to explain nuances that can’t be communicated in a resume. That could include:
Tips for a meaningful cover letter
A good cover letter should be short — no longer than a single page — and detailed. Skip the “To whom it may concern” formalities, and address the specific hiring manager for the position. If you’re not sure, reach out to the company and ask. If you still can’t find the answer, “Dear Hiring Manager,” or “Dear Communications Department,” can work in a pinch. Before you click “send,” double-check that you’re addressing the correct company and hiring manager.
Every cover letter should be customized to the position you’re applying for. Cite specific needs outlined in the job listing, and briefly explain how your experience is relevant. Most importantly, skip the generalities about your “excitement” for the company, opportunity, or field. Filler fluff and unnecessary boasting can annoy recruiters and may do more harm than good.
To send or not to send
Cover letters are becoming obsolete, so don’t feel pressured to include one unless the position specifically calls for it. If you’re a strong writer or you need to explain details that can’t be captured in a resume, sending a cover letter may work in your favor. If you find yourself struggling to write one every time you apply for a position, consider skipping it.