When you're in the market for a new job, it's important to be prepared with all the documents a potential employer might require or expect to receive. After all, the quality of the information you submit when you're applying for a job can definitely determine whether you'll be invited to interview or not. For most jobs, a resume is a must-have. What about cover letters? Discover just how cover letters fit into the process of applying for employment.
Are Cover Letters Necessary?
The short answer to whether you need a cover letter when you are applying for a job is "it depends." Some employers require cover letters and some don't. This is more common in some types of positions than in others. If you're applying for a professional position, chances are that at least some of the jobs you're interested in will require a cover letter. If not, cover letters may not be needed most of the time.
Three Times a Cover Letter Is Necessary
There are a few situations in which a cover letter is mandatory. Your cover letter should really be in template form so you can quickly adapt it to be specific every time you submit it to a potential employer.
When It's Specified in the Job Announcement
If the job advertisement says to submit a resume or job application and cover letter, then a cover letter is absolutely required. If you don't follow all instructions specified for how to apply, chances are you won't be invited to interview. Verifying that applicants can (and do!) follow instructions is often considered to be part of the job application screening process.
When ATS Requires a Cover Letter
If you apply through a company's applicant tracking system (ATS), which is just a database for accepting and processing employment applications, you may find that there is a designated place within the entry fields for you to upload a cover letter. This field may be set to prevent applicants from moving forward without uploading a cover letter. In that case, a cover letter is required even if the job advertisement didn't mention the need for a cover letter.
When It's an Unsolicited Resume Submission
If there are a few companies you'd really like to work for, or where you'd like to do an internship, you may want to submit a resume even if they don't currently have an opening posted. This is a situation where a cover letter is required, as you'll need to include an explanation of why a resume is being sent. Otherwise, the recipient won't know what your intentions are or why you reached out. This is true whether you're mailing, hand-delivering, or emailing your resume. If you're using email, be sure to follow best practices for how to email a resume and cover letter.
Three Times It's Advisable to Include a Cover Letter
There are a few scenarios in which submitting a cover letter would be the best course of action, even if doing so isn't truly mandatory. In these situations, a cover letter is a great tool for pitching yourself to potential employers.
When ATS Has a Designated Cover Letter Spot
Even if an employer's ATS is set up to allow applicants to move forward without a cover letter, it is generally in your best interest to upload one if there is a designated space for one. Why? Employers have electronic application forms customized to meet their needs. There wouldn't be a spot for a cover letter to be uploaded if the employer didn't want one. They may just be checking to see if you're the type of applicant who will do just the bare minimum, versus one who will take the initiative to upload a letter. Providing a cover letter in this situation could be a way that you distinguish yourself from other applicants who won't bother.
When ATS Requests Supporting Information
Some ATS forms include a section at the end that provides a place where applicants can add additional documentation in support of their application. This is the perfect place to distinguish yourself from other applicants by uploading a cover letter that clearly conveys why you are the best fit for the job.
When You're Applying Via Email
If you are responding to a job announcement that tells you to email your resume to the recruiter or hiring manager, you really should include a cover letter in the body of the email message to which your resume is attached. It wouldn't be good for your brand as a potential employee for you to attach your resume to an email message that's blank or has a curt "see attached" note. So, it only makes sense to use cover letter wording in the body of the email. The recipient may be recruiting for several jobs and may not even know what job you want to be considered for if there isn't any information in the body of the message.
Two Times a Cover Letter Is Not Needed
There are situations in which a cover letter is not needed. These are really the only scenarios where you shouldn't include a well-written, customized cover letter with your job application or resume.
When ATS Does Not Have a Place to Put a Cover Letter
If you are instructed to apply for a job by filling out a form via the company's ATS, you may find that there is no place labeled for cover letter submission and no place where you can add supporting documentation. In that situation, you can safely assume that the company does not expect you to submit a cover letter.
When the Job Announcement Specifies Not to Send One
While it's not often that you'll see a job announcement that specifies that a cover letter is not needed, it is not unheard of. Always follow specific instructions provided in a job advertisement to which you are responding. If it says not to send a cover letter, then don't submit one.
Set Yourself Apart With a Quality Cover Letter
When you're looking for a professional job, you absolutely do need a cover letter. You may not use it with every job application you submit, but you should have one to use as needed. Remember: You're not likely to be excluded from consideration for a job for submitting a cover letter that isn't mandatory, but you're sure to be excluded if the employer requires a cover letter and you fail to provide one. Mastering the art of writing a great cover letter can truly help you land the job of your dreams!