When to Include a Cover Letter

Not every recruiter appreciates them, but many recruiters and recruiters do: a personable, tailored cover letter. Here's how to stand out.

Cover letters with applications – by some seen as archaic, unnecessary and time consuming for recruiters. Including one will put you behind applicants that don’t. By others seen as a perfect way to show that you care, a tool to explain certain gaps or issues on your resume, or when you want to add things to your application that don’t have a spot on your resume.

I am in the second group, but as with so many things, it needs to be done right. But it doesn’t need to be done all the time. When shouldn’t you include a cover letter? Let\’s discuss when to include a cover letter, and when not.

1. You can’t or won’t be able to customize your letter

You shouldn’t add a cover letter when you don’t have time or no inspiration for a targeted and customized letter. A standard cover letter will be seen as a waste of time. When you have nothing to add, simply choose not to. That may be better: not including a cover letter when it’s not required, means it may not be noticed that you didn’t draft one. But send one and it’s a bad one, now, that will stand out.

2. When you’re told not to

Also, sometimes the company will state “don’t include a cover letter”. Don’t “show initiative” by including one. Bad idea. There’s a reason they told you not to. Like I said, some recruiters and hiring managers don’t like them. They take too much time, they’re fluffy (although yours won’t be) and they take away the gun powder for the interview.

So, two quick reasons why you shouldn’t. But why should you?

3. There’s a special connection between you and the role

Think of previous direct or indirect experience at the company or the industry, and link that to how you would be even better in the role you’re targeting. If you know people at the company, it’s smart to let recruiters know.

4. You have been referred

If it’s more than knowing someone, such as someone introducing you to the hiring manager or someone in leadership, acknowledge that relationship. You can explain how you know the person, and link back to why you’d be a fit – and your referrer clearly agrees. Use that link. In the instances where I have been a recruiter, I subconsciously always put in just a little bit more effort with a referral from a colleague, and especially a leader. Not that the candidate is more special, but in those cases, as a recruiter, you suddenly are also responsible for the good name of your colleague. Use that to your advantage!  

5. You want to be absolutely certain the recruiter understands why you’re applying

Sometimes, simply putting your resume through the ATS alone isn’t enough. There is a vacancy at the phone manufacturer with the circle-shaped auditorium. The sport shoe maker with the outdoor tracks and indoor basketball courts, or – in my case -the car maker of your dreams. In those cases, you want to put in 150% of the effort. Without rambling on (see below), you can use a few paragraphs to explain why you’re passionate. Hopefully the passion will jump off the letter, and translate into an interview.

Also, in those cases, put in the effort, do an “all or nothing” and find the hiring manager. Just get your letter and your resume directly on the decision maker’s desk.

6. There’s something “iffy” about your resume

Do  you have a bit of a gap? A weird role in between more logical roles? Or one, that seems to get less and less relevant in today’s gig economy, with you hopping around a bit? You can dedicate one paragraph to a clean, unapologetic explanation and reason why that absolutely doesn’t matter because you’re the candidate for the role.

7. How to draft the perfect letter

For a perfect cover letter, the following applies.

  • Customize it. A template won’t hack it. You can automate or standardize the standard elements (address, closing), but the rest you tailor to the role. Look at the key words, requirements and deliverables and incorporate those in your letter.
  • Go beyond the resume. Don’t rehash what you have in your resume. Yes, you can highlight and broaden relevant items, but provide examples, deliverables and solutions you don’t or only just barely mention in your resume.
  • Keep it short. By no means longer than 1 page, and whatever you state in each paragraph, needs to be clear, powerful and significant.
  • No room for mistakes. You have to read the letter over and over to make sure there are no mistakes. If you use a standard header and footer, check those (twice) to make sure you don’t use a wrong address, contact, date or something else that gives away you did a Copy-and-Paste.  

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This allows you and your hiring team the opportunity to share and analyze the candidates for your interviews when it suits you. We pre-screen so you don’t have to: talk about the ultimate time management tool.

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