Is The Cover Letter Obsolete?

Are cover letters necessary anymore? There are some who claim that the Internet era has made them obsolete. And when you're applying to dozens of jobs online, it isn't worth the extra effort; all that employers look at are the resumes.

Don't believe them. A resume alone will rarely get you the job-- no matter how stellar your credentials. The reality is that there are so many job applicants for each position you must distinguish yourself above and beyond the competition. A cover letter can help you do that very thing. Let me first say that I'm a firm believer in customizing your resume for each job you're applying to. It's a fact that the HR scanning software systems look for direct word matches on your resume and this holds true for cover letters as well.

Composing a unique cover letter for each opportunity you seek allows you to tell your story and showcase your value-add. Plus, it's a writing sample and if that competency is part of the job, this will be the first opportunity for you to showcase this strength. Likewise, it can also kill your chances if your letter is not up to par.

Here are some basics to consider when writing your letter:

Use the job description as a guide. If you are lucky enough to have a human being read your materials, they will look at your cover letter first and decide if they want to read your resume. Human resource professionals are inundated with applications so make their job easy and use the exact verbiage in your letter that appears in the job description. Of course, only do this if you can truthfully deliver the skills and experiences they need.

Whet their appetite. The point of the letter is to entice the employer to invite you to interview. Tell your story and why you want the job. Be sure to show your enthusiasm and also indicate where you heard about the opportunity. This is a perfect chance to illustrate a personal network connection if you have one but you can also mention a job board or website if that's how you heard about the opening. Companies like to know how their position advertising dollars pay off so don't forget this important step.

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Tell them why you are valuable. Your letter should show your genuine enthusiasm for the position but the focus should not only be about why you want the job. You must showcase why you are able to do the job and give a brief example or two, of your experiences that illustrate the skill set they seek. This professional story telling is extremely important because your one page narrative will fast track you to an interview (or not!) based on how well you convey your value to the organization.

Keep it to one page. With the myriad of applicants and the uneven supply and demand for jobs, you MUST keep your message brief, clear, and well composed. Going over a page could be a deal breaker so keep it short, on point, and always professional. Mind your manners and thank them for considering your materials and include the masthead from your resume with all your pertinent contact information.

Read it out loud. Proofing is essential but I also suggest that you (and others) read it out loud to check for flow, clarity, and rhythm. You must give the reader an opportunity to breathe since run-on sentences are inappropriate grammatically but also frustrating for the reader.

Don't address it to "whom it may concern": In this Internet-at-your-fingertips era, it can be easy to find out who is leading the search committee. If this information is not available online then call the main reception phone of the organization to sleuth out this crucial detail. Receptionists are the gatekeepers of information. Obtaining the name of the person leading the search so you can address the letter to them personally may just put you at the top of the pile for consideration.

A cover letter can be especially important if you are going through a career change, getting back into the workforce after a prolonged absence, or have some other unique issue to explain that is not evident on your resume. Use the letter to convey the message on your terms so your employment gap does not automatically disqualify you from the job, for example.

Unless the posting explicitly says "no cover letter" and some do, always send a letter. It can distinguish you from the application pool and help you showcase what you do well in regards to what the employer needs.

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I think the point is that it is the majority of people who are posting jobs, very seldom do any of them even bother to acknowledge applications.Even despite the fact that all emails can be set to autorespond. Sure, they expect everyone to be tech savvy amd create all manner of profiles and apply through one website or another but when it comes to them actually keeping the human part in human resources they are very rude and inept. Is there little wonder why the American job market is as bad as it is. It is somewhat exaccerbated by bogus offers that permeate the web and how many intenships can there be after all.

August 17 2012 at 6:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Stephen's comment

Stephen - I agree there are jobs posted that have already been filled which is cruel in this tough job market. The system is far from perfect but my advice for all job seekers is to spend 90% of your time connecting with actual people and 10% of your time applying online. The yield is far better when you make human connections and in the end organizations often hire who they know and trust. Until the system gets more functional and the supply and demand evens out, I would stick to creating deep network connections and getting yourself into situations where you can be seen and heard so you can be hired. It takes a lot of effort but the success rates are much higher.


August 18 2012 at 11:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This article is BS, pardon my French. I am a VERY highly paid consultant. Because of the level of my pay not many companies can keep me for more than 6 months at a time and I have to constantly look for new contracts. Do I ever use cover letter? NO! There is no point in doing that. You need to be good in what you are doing and keep your resume and skills up to date. That will get you a job, not a cover letter.
I also conducted close to 100 interviews in the last 3 years and I never ever even looked at cover letters, I look at skills and experience, that's what counts, nothing else. The author of this article is clueless but I guess that's her way of making money too:) I mean there are even sex couches now days,why not "career coach"

August 17 2012 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Denis's comment

Denis - I appreciate your candor and agree a cover letter does not work for every job seeker or every field. However, it can be a great tool for job changers and those that need to explain a red flag on a resume like an employment gap. I have conducted thousands of interviews and when candidates don't submit a resume I have no narrative about them and why they want the job. As a recruiter, it's essential to get some back story in addition to the resume.

As for very high level searches, relationships are essential and the cover letter may not be as widely used, if at all, but for many searches the cover letter is still a valid tool. Thank you for sharing your input, Denis!

Caroline Dowd-Higgins

August 17 2012 at 5:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am a hiring manager. I work for a large global company. This misconception that companies use "HR scanning software" always gets me. From experience, I have to say, most hiring managers have to sort through application submissions one-by-one on a web-based computer program that ties into the company's careers website and/or major online job boards (, etc.). For me, the web-based software is laid out like the inbox of an email application. I see the cover letter, resume, and application form all in one message. I can tell you, every single time, the first and usually last thing I immediately do is to scroll down to the resume portion of the submission and look for relevant experience. If the experience is not there, I move on. You had your 3.5 seconds of my attention. End-of-story. If the experience is there, I toss the submission into folder for candidates that I will consider contacting over the phone at a later time. When that time arrives I will start with the candidate that has the strongest experience and background first in hopes of landing a winner with minimal effort. Then I will work my way down the list of candidates to grab a handful of promising prospects lucky enough to meet me face-to-face. Did anyone catch where I read the cover letter? Glad you were paying attention-- I didn't. In this modern day and age, everyone is stretched thin, pulling double-duty for "lean" work forces. There is no time to spare. I don't care about the generic reason you think you are a good candidate for a position you know very little about. It is implied that you think you are a good candidate by virtue of you applying. And everyone wants the job, so no amount of explaining to me why you want it more than the next candidate is going to supersede experience. Is the cover letter Obsolete? Absolutely. Do away with it. It is a vestige of a different time. Anyone that thinks otherwise-- Well they are probably also obsolete.

August 17 2012 at 1:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to anon02791's comment

Dear Anon02791,

Your points are excellent and I agree, for high volume searches often cover letters are never read. I am also glad to hear that your large global company does not use the software scanning programs to weed out materials. It's nice to know that you still have the human touch.

The legal profession for example, still requires and reads cover letters for entry-level and lateral candidates.Writing is an essential skill for attorneys so a well written letter is part of the initial screening of materials. A poorly written letter will sink a candidate.

I appreciate the conversation about what industries look at letters and which do not. I still stand firm that in some instances a cover letter can be helpful and it also gives a candidate the opportunity to self reflect and create talking points about skills, value-add, and fit that can be used in an actual interview.

Thanks for joining in on this conversation!

Caroline Dowd-Higgins

August 17 2012 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What I've experienced is the notion that recruiters and HR folks are finding the cover letter obsolete. Mine are very custom, wherein sometimes I'll see a position listed in another city for quite sometime. So then I'll submit my resume, along with a cover letter that states that relocation is not an option for me, however since they're having trouble finding local candidates, would they be open to the telecommuting option.

The responses I get to these types of submissions are very frequently proving they've not looked at the cover letter all, initially asking that since the position is located elsewhere, would I be open to relocation...

August 17 2012 at 1:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Northwind's comment

Dear Northwind,

I appreciate your entrepreneurial spirit in suggesting the telecommuting options! Someday an organization just may take you up on this if you are a good fit. On the other end of the spectrum I was part of a search team for a development position in a non-profit organization. A candidate explained in a cover letter that they had additional skills beyond development and asked if we would consider a new role that was 1/2 development and 1/2 marketing. It was a bold suggestion but as it turned out, we interviewed this candidate and hired them for that very combination. The cover letter prompted the search team to consider this very creative option.

So, never say never and know that cover letters can and do work in some situation. Thank you for sharing your story.

Caroline Dowd-Higgins

August 17 2012 at 5:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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