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Do I Really Need to Write a Cover Letter?

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Writing a great cover letter is time-consuming, stressful — and often a complete waste of time.

First you need to research the company. Then you have to figure out how to express your qualifications without duplicating your resume. Then you need to express it all in a detailed, but concise, letter. And finally, you need to apply your internet sleuthing skills to figure out whom to address the letter to.

The stakes are high — a bad cover letter can hurt your chances just as much as a good one can help. That’s why three words can stop you cold while you’re searching for jobs:

“Cover letter optional.”

“Optional”? Is this a trap? What should you do?

The fact is, not all job application processes — for example, the Aerotek job board — require a cover letter anymore. Cover letters are still helpful for some jobs, but less so for others.

Do you need to write a cover letter? The short answer is… maybe.

How hiring managers use your letter

Before deciding whether a cover letter is necessary, it may be helpful to know how they’re viewed by the people who read them.

Hiring managers use cover letters to evaluate written communication skills and to get a sense of your level of interest in the position. Are you applying because the position is exactly what you’re looking for, or do you just need a job? Employers really want to work with people who have taken the time to research the company and are excited about the mission, and a cover letter is the vehicle to demonstrate that enthusiasm.

Though a cover letter is a good first way to assess your personality and passion, hiring managers will usually wait until the interview to fully gauge whether you’re a good culture fit for the company.

When you should definitely write a cover letter

If the job listing explicitly requires a cover letter — not “cover letter optional” — then you need to write one. The ability to follow instructions is a basic job skill, and this is one way to prove you have it.

Same deal if a cover letter wasn’t initially required, but an employer later requests one.

The good news in these scenarios is that your employer wants to know as much as possible about every candidate they hire. So after you nail your cover letter, you’ll join a group of co-workers who are as enthusiastic as you are.

When you should probably write a cover letter

Take a step back and consider how you really feel about the position. Do you need any job, or do you need this job? If the latter, why not go the extra mile and write that cover letter?

That’s why you should write a cover letter for the following job application scenarios:

  • If you’re applying for your dream job, writing a cover letter gives you the chance to demonstrate your enthusiasm — something employers love to see
  • If you’ve been referred to the job posting by someone you know, writing a cover letter can help you assure the supervisor or hiring manager that your interest is genuine
  • If you’re trying to switch jobs and need to explain how your skills transfer to a new industry or function
  • If you have information that can help overcome a potential red flag in your candidacy, such as applying from out of town or not meeting an education or experience requirement

Do you have to write a cover letter in the above scenarios? No! But a good cover letter can help to put your resume at the top of the stack.

When you shouldn’t write a cover letter

Not every job, candidate, or company needs a cover letter anymore. There’s a growing sentiment that they don’t indicate candidate quality as well as screening methods like online challenges and video interviewing.

You can always skip the cover letter whenever:

  • A job listing explicitly mentions not submitting a cover letter
  • A job listing appears on an automated job board that doesn’t include a cover letter field or document attachment option

If you’re looking to bypass some of the job search pain, consider working with a recruiter. Our job board allows you to apply to hundreds of thousands of jobs — and no cover letters allowed.