Should You Always Include a Cover Letter?

By Biron Clark

Published:

Cover Letters

Biron Clark

Biron Clark

Writer & Career Coach

The little-known truth about cover letters is: You do NOT always need to include a cover letter when applying for jobs, and you may be wasting hours sending cover letters that employers won’t read.

So if you’re wondering whether you should always submit a cover letter with your job application and resume, then keep reading.

After working for years as a recruiter, I’m going to share the exact situations where you should provide a cover letter and the situations where it’s not needed.

Should You Always Submit a Cover Letter?

Many people on LinkedIn and other sites will tell you that you should include a cover letter every time because it “can’t hurt,” but that’s not true…

Here’s how it CAN hurt you…

Writing a great cover letter takes a LOT of time and mental energy. So if it’s not making a difference, or not even getting read, then it is hurting you in terms of wasted time and energy (I’d argue that writing a cover letter is the toughest and most time-consuming part of the process for many job seekers).

How important is a cover letter

Writing a resume is tough, sure. But once you get it, you’re done. You spend 5-15 minutes tailoring it for each specific job you apply for, but that’s it.

Cover letters take a lot of time EVERY time (at least when done right).

That’s why it’s important to look at how important a cover letter is, and which situations it’s necessary and truly beneficial in.

3 Situations Where You Need to Send a Cover Letter:

There are a couple of specific scenarios where cover letters are necessary, and you should send one. This article by Harvard Business Review says it best:

three situations where cover letters are important and necessary

In those cases, according to Harvard Business Review, you can boost your chances of getting the interview by writing a short letter to point out similarities between your resume and the job requirements (e.g. why you’d do well in their job)… rather than leaving the analysis entirely up to the hiring manager.

But this is only worth doing if you meet one or more of the criteria above, or a few other situations I’ll explain below…

Two more cases where you may want to include a cover letter:

First, you should send a cover letter if an employer specifically says it’s required on their website or job application form (however, having an optional field to include it is not the same as asking for it or saying it’s required).

And second, you should send a letter if you have a large gap in employment or something unusual in your background that you feel the need to explain, and you don’t feel your resume explains it well enough on its own.

(Although I do like addressing gaps in employment directly on your resume employment history section when possible. For example, if you took a year off to raise a kid, you could say: “2018-2019: One-year break from work to raise first child.” So do try to explain this type of thing on your resume if you can!)

When You Don’t Need a Cover Letter:

If you don’t fall into any of the situations we looked at above, then a cover letter is not needed.

For example, if you’re just applying for jobs online via job boards, via LinkedIn, on company websites via their “careers” page, etc., then I’d skip it! Send your resume and let it speak for itself. (And if you don’t have a great resume yet, you can get help  here.)

In my opinion, the extra time and effort just isn’t worth it when you’re applying online with no prior relationship, no referral, and no special knowledge of the hiring manager or job requirements that you can use to make your case for why they should interview you.

This is one reason I love LinkedIn EasyApply as a part of an online job search – because a cover letter is not required or even expected.

Of course, the final judgment call is yours!

If you’re applying to your dream employer and you don’t mind spending an hour writing up a great cover letter, then go ahead! It can’t hurt in a one-off scenario like this.

But the main point I’m trying to make here is:

You should be selective about when to send a cover letter, rather than feeling obligated to send it by default.

Recap: How Important is a Cover Letter?

The answer to how important a cover letter is depends on the hiring process and situation. If you read the information above, you now know when a cover letter is necessary/recommended, and when you probably shouldn’t bother.

And you’ve seen that cover letters do matter in some cases, but that doesn’t mean that you always need to send a cover letter.

And as mentioned earlier, the main benefit of this approach is time savings…

When you look at how much time and effort goes into writing each of these letters, it can add up to hours or days of wasted time if you’re sending cover letters without analyzing whether it’s necessary for the situation.

Tips for Writing a Good Cover Letter:

Now that we’ve answered whether a cover letter is necessary, and when it’s important, here are some tips and resources to help you in situations where you decide a cover letter is needed:

First, I’d always recommend keeping it brief, easy to read (no huge paragraphs or blocks of text without spacing), and personal.

It should feel like you’re talking directly to them! That means start with “Dear Bethany”, (for example), not with, “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Recruiter”.

(Recruiters almost never care about a cover letter anyway. It should be for the hiring manager).

Also, make sure you’re saying the word “you” at least as often as you say the word “I”. Talk about their needs and their company, not just about yourself.

The purpose of your cover letter is to point out similarities between your background and the employer’s job requirements. You want to demonstrate why you’re likely to succeed in their specific role, to sell them on interviewing you! And you cannot do this without researching their job and understanding/discussing their job. So this letter isn’t just about you, it’s about them just as much.

To help you further, we’ve published two articles here on Career Sidekick with great cover letter info:

If you follow the steps above, you’ll save time in your job search and maximize the number of interviews you get for the effort you put into your job applications!


Biron Clark

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5 thoughts on “Should You Always Include a Cover Letter?”

  1. Good stuff Biron! This is why Career Sidekick is my go-to career blog, I really admire how you take a contrarian approach to conventional job search/career wisdom!

    Seems like almost every other career blog advises you to always submit a cover letter. Too bad these folks don’t consider the most important asset we all have: time!

    Would being graduated out of college for 1.5 years and haven’t “launched” your career yet – getting a job in the field you got a degree in – count as something “unusual on your background” that you would need a cover letter for?

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for the kind words. I don’t think you’d need a cover letter for this. Just make sure to “tailor” your resume to show the most relevant pieces of the work you have done, and to show your relevant educational background/degree. But if you’re not getting results with your resume, then it’s worth testing/trying a cover letter. My guess is that it’s not needed, and perfecting your resume will get more interviews.

    • Thanks for the advice Biron!

      If I understand you correctly, is this an instance where you would recommend NOT using a chronological work history on a resume then?

      And instead break up work experience history into a “relevant” and “other work experience” sections, since we’re trying to show specific relevant pieces of experience and educational background/degree?

    • I’d still keep it chronological. Just show the most relevant pieces of each past role, for the job you want now.

  2. How about in my situation? I am looking for a job in marketing, but it has been five years and a few jobs since marketing has been the primary function of my job. My last few jobs have had a very little marketing focus and have been training, technical or sales in focus. Should I always write a cover letter to explain this when I am applying for marketing jobs?

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