Even if a hiring manager doesn't read your cover letter, writing one will still help you stand out from other candidates.

Congrats — you've found a job that looks like a fit, and you've taken the time to craft a specialized resume for the role. But do you really have to spend more time writing a cover letter as well? Do recruiters even read cover letters anymore?

The short answers are “yes” and “sometimes.” However, it's the “sometimes” that can keep your interview chances alive, all other things being equal.

As a start, it's good to know some specific situations where you must write a cover letter.

When are cover letters necessary?

There are four very specific situations that will always require a cover letter.

  1. You're applying directly to a specific person in the company, not through the general application system.

  2. Someone has referred you for the position that you can mention in your cover letter.

  3. It's requested in the job application.

  4. The employer's hiring manager or recruiter specifically asks for it.

These all make sense, but what if none of those apply to your particular job application process?

Write a cover letter anyway.

Remember your mother telling you to always have an extra of whatever you need because it's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it? That's a broad rule of thumb for cover letters; it's always better to submit one that might not be read versus a recruiter or hiring manager looking for one that's not there.

You can also find incentive for writing a cover letter once you understand the specific ways it helps you stand out as a candidate.

How does a cover letter help you get hired?

It's a tie-breaker

Full disclosure: In my work as a recruiter, I barely glanced at cover letters — unless I had two equally qualified candidates and needed a deciding factor, or I was interested in a candidate, but their resume didn't tell me enough of what I wanted to know.

It shows you're serious about the job

Preparing a cover letter when one isn't formally required shows that you're willing to take the extra time and energy to show just how much you want the job.

Two recent studies by CareerBuilder also confirm that a cover letter never fails to impress. About 53 percent of employers feel a resume alone is not enough to get noticed, while 49 percent of HR managers said that including a cover letter is the second-best way to call attention to your resume, behind customizing that resume for the job.

The data also showed that cover letters made a strong impression whether the job was full-time, part-time, or an internship.

It can explain employment gaps and career changes

Sticking to a two-page resume means you can't clarify or explain that gap in your employment or why you went into a new career; this is the role of the cover letter. 

Instead of a hiring manager tossing your resume due to that employment gap, they can refer to the cover letter to better understand the circumstances surrounding it.

It has a big impact at small companies

Smaller companies often hire fewer people at a time, so their hiring managers will likely take the time to look for and read a cover letter to better understand each candidate.

It shows some of your personality

A cover letter can also help a recruiter or hiring manager see a bit of your personality to assess how you would fit with their company culture, so make sure you show off your personality in a way that is effective and professional.

Does anyone actually read cover letters?

As mentioned above, the best answer is “sometimes” — and it also can depend on who you ask.

TopResume's expert Amanda Augustine shares a good example of this:

“According to the 2016 Recruiter Nation Report by recruitment software provider Jobvite, 74 percent of recruiters do not consider cover letters important in their decision to hire an applicant. However, a poll from recruitment firm Robert Half found that 90 percent of executives consider cover letters to be invaluable when assessing candidates.”

The paradox is that even though they might not always read cover letters, most hiring managers always want them. 

The benefit for you is that whether it's read or not a cover letter always makes a good impression. Also, if the hiring manager for your job is someone who actually will read a cover letter, you want it to be there — your future career is too important to leave to chance.

What's in a good cover letter? 

Writing an effective cover letter is a topic in itself, but this is the basic information to include:

  • Introduce yourself and how you learned about the job.

  • Show how you would add value to the company.

  • Offer a solution for a pressing issue at the company.

  • Provide your contact information and availability for an interview.

Summary

Cover letters take time and energy to create, which makes it tempting to just not write them at all, but don't give in.

Whether you're applying online or through an email, the simple act of including a cover letter is impressive enough for employers to take notice. Even if no one reads it, a cover letter is worth the effort if it helps you score the job. 

Not feeling confident in your job search right now? It's tough out there — but we can help. 

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