Are cover letters overrated?

Written by Emilie Brunet

Do you really need a cover letter?

The debate around cover letters feels like it’s been going on forever. There are hiring and HR managers who disagree across the board. Some are staunch supporters of cover letters, others ask for them but never actually read them, and finally some are steadfast against them.

While everyone under the sun will have a different take on this topic, it’s important to take the time to understand when it’s worth submitting a cover letter and when it’s not.

So, why do companies even ask?

The cover letter makes the case, while the CV presents the evidence.

The purpose of cover letters is not always clear. Most people feel as though they are basically reiterating what their CV says into a few polite, long-form, paragraphs. While every company is different and every hiring manager is different, the primary intention of cover letters is for the candidate to make their case as to why they think that they are the best candidate for the role, specifically what value they’ll add.

The cover letter makes the case, while the CV presents the evidence.

The problem with this is that work and hiring has changed greatly since the use of cover letters first went into practice in the 1930’s.

The job market has changed

Since job listings are so widely available online, hiring managers now receive hundreds, if not thousands, of applications for each job posting. A cover letter used to make the difference in figuring out who the right candidate is in a pool of 10-20 candidates, but now, reading through hundreds of cover letters is more often than not, just a huge time-waster and doesn’t give you any more insight into who’s the right fit for a role or not.

As someone who has gone through hundreds (if not thousands) of received applications, I believe there’s a time and a place for a cover letter. While I used to be a firm believer in always asking for one, I now ask for them optionally.

A company might be using a cover letter to weed out applicants

When a company knows that a job posting is going to receive a lot of applicants, making a cover letter “mandatory” allows them to immediately weed people out. If you don’t send in a cover letter, then you don’t move on to the next stage. Is this kind of obnoxious? Yes. Do companies still do it? Yes. 

But asking an applicant to follow a simple instruction, only for them to not do it, allows a company to know how “serious” a candidate is about a role (more on that later).

A pre-screen for your written communication skills

I can think of a recent instance in which we were hiring for a role in which 80% of the responsibilities involved written communication. One of the easiest ways to determine whether or not someone had the skills we were looking for was simply by asking for a cover letter. If someone was able to clearly express themselves and articulate a point in a professional way through their cover letter, they were invited in for an interview.

This is not uncommon, companies use cover letters as a way to see if someone has the written communication skills that they require for the role.

When to submit a cover letter

If there’s a time and place for a cover letter, when is that time and place?

Not enough industry experience

At Journey Education and Concordia Bootcamps, we primarily work with students who are hoping to change careers. They’re looking to go from working in restaurants, hospitals, retail, art, etc into moving into the field of tech.

A cover letter is most helpful when you are applying for a job in which you have little to no related experience.

If your CV has 10 years of experience in the service industry and only 6 months of experience in Web Development but you’re applying for a Web Developer job, a carefully crafted cover letter can help you stand out and make the case for why you will provide value to the company.

Your cover letter allows you to take the time to relate your non-industry specific work experience to how it can be utilized and helpful to the role you are applying for. Explaining why your years of experience as a server allowed you to excel in clear communication, your ability to give and receive feedback, your ability to quickly learn and adapt in difficult situations, etc.

While you can technically write all this down on your CV, a cover letter allows you to craft a story — and storytelling is a key skill required in getting hired.

Lastly, a cover letter can also allow you to outline your goals and what you hope to get out of the job!

When the role doesn’t have many applicants

When applying for a role that doesn’t have many applicants, writing a cover letter can make you stand out among the few. 

The problem becomes, how do you know if a job has a lot of applicants or not? 

Is it an entry-level position?

The number of applicants that a hiring manager receives decreases significantly the higher up the position is in the company. What this means is that entry-level roles may get hundreds of applications, but managerial level positions may only get a few dozen.

Check on LinkedIn

LinkedIn has a cool feature on their job listings that demonstrate just how many people have applied to the position via LinkedIn. Remember that whatever number you see on LinkedIn, there’s probably a solid handful more who have applied outside of LinkedIn.

Is it a small company?

Massive, well-known organizations have a tendency to receive thousands of applications, whereas smaller companies don’t get nearly as many. While it might not be worth it to send in a cover letter if you’re applying to Google, if you’re applying to a small business, a cover letter can make you stand out.

If you really, really, really want a job

The most important time and place to write a cover letter is when it is a job that you absolutely, unbelievably want — I’m talking about your dream job.

If there’s a company that you have been wanting to work at for a long time and they finally have an opening and you apply for it, use a cover letter to express that passion.

There’s nothing I love more than receiving a job application from someone who writes a cover letter in which they express just how much they care about our mission, our values and how excited they are at the prospect of working with us.

Do I know that sometimes it’s probably a certain amount of kissing a**? Yes, but I eat it up. And most hiring managers do. Because in a sea of tired, boring and repetitive cover letters, getting one where the candidate gushes about the company, is really motivating and makes you stand out.

If the company makes it mandatory

This might sound obvious. But the most important time to send in a cover letter is if the company asks you to send in a cover letter. As stated earlier, companies use it to weed candidates out. Don’t get weeded out by just not submitting one if someone asks.

The Future of Cover Letters

In an earlier paragraph, we spoke about how cover letters allow employers to determine who is “serious” about a role or not.

Only engaging with candidates who are “serious” about their job search is still a very common practice in recruiting. The reality of the job market however, is that most people are applying for any job they can get. Because having a job is not a luxury, it’s a requirement to survive.

With hiring freezes, massive layoffs and inflation, taking the time to find the “perfect job” isn’t an option anymore. And taking the approach that a candidate needs to take getting hired “seriously” in order to be one of the lucky few who get to meet with you is a harmful mentality if you’re a hiring manager.

Employees are the backbone of every company — a company can’t run without them. It’s important to take the time to ensure you’ve hired the right person (because hiring the wrong person can negatively affect employees as well). But making the barriers to entry into a weird, exclusive privilege just so that someone can have a job and put food on their table is an old school mentality.

I still think that cover letters have a time and a place. But they should not always be what makes the difference between a candidate moving to the interview stage or not.

So to answer the question: Do you really need a cover letter? 

The answer is Yes. And no.

Ultimately, it’s your choice as an applicant to decide if writing a cover letter makes sense.

Having a cover letter “template” that you can use to swap out information easily to adapt it to the position you’re applying for can make it easier when a company arbitrarily asks you to submit one. It’s important to strike a balance between taking your job search seriously and also recognizing when writing a cover letter is or isn’t worth your time.

About the author

Hey, I'm Emilie 👋🏻

I'm the People & Culture Manager at Journey Education. I have always had a passion for writing, organization and finding creative solutions. I aim to be personable, empathetic and compassionate and believe that kindness can go along way in both business and life.

Having worked and organized with anti-capitalist, feminist and queer organizations, I strongly believe that EVERYONE deserves, not just a living wage, but a thriving wage and that it should be the priority of every business to create an inclusive, caring and diverse work environment that doesn't just ensures the work happens, but allows people to be people while the work is happening!

My approach to everything I do reflects my training in trauma-informed practices, active listening and harm reduction as well as my interest in understand the way people work, behave and exist as their full human self. I want to create safer spaces for people to explore, create and excel in a supportive environment - whether that's in life or at work.