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How Important Is a Cover Letter?

confused woman holding paper cover letterIn a previous article, I discussed how to write an effective cover letter if you need one. In this article, I want to dig deeper into tackling a frequent question I get: “How important is a cover letter?” And the natural follow-up, “Do hiring managers even read cover letters?”

Cover Letters Are Often Important

Not long ago, I read a job posting from Go Fish Digital, located in Raleigh, NC. The posting included some of the best instructions I have ever read—and speaks to the importance of a cover letter.

The job posting stated:

Instructions for Applying

In addition to your resume, you must write a custom one-page cover letter. If the website you’re using to apply doesn’t allow you to attach a separate cover letter, combine it with your resume into a single document. This is extremely important, as you will not be considered without a cover letter. This ensures you can follow directions and have read all the way down to here. [emphasis mine]

We’ll read your cover letter first, so really personalize it and let it showcase your personality and strengths. This should not be a stiff, boilerplate piece of writing. Be real, be yourself, and make us want to learn more about you. Stand out from the crowd!

(Seriously, we eliminate any applicant who doesn’t follow these cover letter instructions. Don’t skip it.)

Let’s dissect Go Fish Digital’s instructions for writing a cover letter. First, the company is testing applicants by making sure they can follow simple instructions. The company only wants serious candidates who have taken the time to review the job posting attentively and thoroughly. This should not be a difficult test, but I have spoken to countless employers who lament that many candidates don’t follow application instructions.

Next, the company highlights what they want to see in a cover letter, in a fun but firm way. They couldn’t be clearer! The Go Fish Digital team wants to get a feel for who the applicant is. In this specific case, it is not only an invitation for applicants to include standard information about their interest in the role (see the comment about showcasing strengths) but also to incorporate information they might not normally consider adding or to take a more lighthearted tone.

For this company, a thoughtful cover letter is clearly important. For certain roles and industries, a cover letter is similarly mandatory and can even be as important as a resume or CV.

What about Employers Who Don’t State What They Want in a Cover Letter?

All this means is that they assume you know what to include: who you are, what role you’re applying for, why you’re interested in the organization/role, and what makes you uniquely qualified.

In these instances, a cover letter is a perfect opportunity to proactively address any potential concerns employers might have about your background or work history (e.g., work gaps) and highlight special “value-added” items that might not appear in your resume (e.g., a particularly relevant project, trait, or experience).

When Cover Letters Are Unimportant

Not all employers want to read cover letters. In these rare cases, the job description will state, “Do not submit a cover letter.”

Even when you don’t include a formal cover letter in your application, you should still think carefully about how you craft any emails to company contacts and potential interviewers. These forms of communication are ways to express your excitement and fit for the role clearly and concisely. And if you directly email your resume when applying rather than submit it through an online portal, you will need a brief “e-cover letter” stating your intent to apply.

The Likelihood of Covers Letters Being Read

A common statistic that floats around the Internet is that cover letters are read only about 50 percent of the time.

Whether a cover letter is read when a person is first screening an application is an individual choice. I’ve heard plenty of hiring managers and recruiters state that they read resumes first and then only read cover letters if the resume piqued their interest. Other people have told me they always read the cover letter—and they always read it first.

Given this frustrating situation, I revert to logic: It’s likely that many applicants get screened out without the hirers reading the cover letter. This can occur because the (often busy) people who review applications prioritize reading the resume and then determine which applicants are not qualified. Or, the reader was otherwise uninterested in reading further. For instance, typos in a resume can disqualify applicants; shoddy resume content can do this, too. In these cases, the answer to “How important is a cover letter?” is …not very. That is because the resume did not entice a reviewer to read further.

But, if you submit a cover letter, surely it will be read if it made it past the initial screening—that process of narrowing 15 qualified applicants to three, or 20 down to five. In these instances, your cover letter can truly help you stand out. Your application can rise to the top if you have a well-written letter that demonstrates your fit and expresses why you’re interested in the company in a thoughtful, genuine way.

At this stage of the application and hiring process, reading cover letters is also frequently viewed by employers as a good time management practice. Before setting up an interview, interviewers will want to review a candidate’s cover letter if, for no other reason, than to make sure the person is someone they really want to bring in. Again, a cover letter is an opportunity to help you stand out.

Takeaway

As you can see, there is not a simple answer to “How important is a cover letter?” There are many factors to consider, including whether an employer implores you to write one and the individual reading preferences of reviewers.

All of your cover letters will probably not be read because you might get screened out before reviewers are willing to read them. But your letters will almost certainly be read by the employers who do invite you to interview. That alone is plenty reason to write and submit effective cover letters.

Heidi Scott Giusto, PhD

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses succeed when the stakes are high. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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