| do you really need a cover letter?

Back in the days of “snail mail,” the use of a cover letter was standard. Applicants mailed their resumes and included a cover letter to introduce themselves and highlight their qualifications. Nowadays, no one actually mails their resume to anyone; so the obvious question is whether cover letters are still needed.

Here are some thoughts to consider:

  • Does the job posting ask for a cover letter? If so, you definitely want to include one. If nothing else, it shows that you can follow instructions (always a plus for an employer!).
  • Is there a place to upload a cover letter? Many private sector Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) do not provide space to upload a cover letter. If you find yourself in this situation, it is clear that the organization does not want a cover letter.
  • Most private sector recruiters (over 60% according to some studies) do not read them. Of course, that means that approximately 40% of resume reviewers and recruiters do review cover letters.
  • In the federal arena, the first thing that is reviewed is basic qualifications and then the questionnaire; next is the resume. An applicant has no way of knowing whether the Human Resources Specialist reads your letter—or even more importantly, passes it along to the hiring manager.
  • A cover letter that simply says “here is my resume for the ABC position is always worse than no cover letter at all. If you are going to prepare a cover letter, you should make it meaningful. There are still no guarantees that it will be read or considered but if it is, it will at least say something.

If you do decide to prepare a cover letter, here are best practices:

  • Customize your cover letter, including addressing it to a real person and properly noting the job and organization. There is no excuse for “to whom it may concern.” All federal job postings list a contact person. And for private sector positions, use LinkedIn and other sources to find the hiring manager.
  • Make it different than your resume. A cover letter should not just repeat what’s in your resume—highlight your key qualifications and accomplishments vis-à-vis the posting and tell your story, while making it personal. You can and should use “I” in your cover letter.
  • If you are emailing your resume to someone, you should put your “cover letter” in the body of the email, rather than making it a second attachment for someone to open. Keep it short; emails are typically shorter than letters. If you’re putting your resume and cover letter into a system, be sure to put it in the right place.
  • Keep it short and sweet; your cover letter should not exceed one page and paragraphs should be kept to 4-5 sentences.
  • Ensure perfection. Make sure your cover letter is well written and includes no typos or grammatical errors. Ask a friend, family member, or colleague to proof it for you.

While in many cases, a cover letter is no longer needed, if you are going to prepare and submit one, make sure it is worth the reader’s time and attention!

Nancy Segal is a federal human resources training and job search expert. Following her own 30-year federal HR career (much of it at the senior level), she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC in 2003 to provide an HR management perspective to both federal managers and astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy has unmatched federal career management insight, high standards, and respect for people’s time, and her clients use this to their advantage.