Do cover letters still have a place in the digital age?
I would have to say that this is probably one of the questions I get asked most frequently.
For anyone with an insatiable curiosity, I did stumble upon the history of the cover letter and I think is probably how cover letters originated.
The Death of the Cover Letter
I think because résumés and cover letters are so different stylistically and each serves a distinct purpose, we tend to treat the documents differently. We typically spend hours perfecting our résumés and considerably less time on our cover letters. In addition, with the rise of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS), the software where people upload their résumés when applying to a company, you have to upload your résumé and cover letter as separate documents or, in some cases, you can only upload one document, so the obvious choice is the résumé. I think these factors have contributed to cover letters losing the importance they once had.
In a more practical sense, if you are applying to a company where you don’t know anyone and it is not a standard practice in your field, forgoing a cover letter won’t hurt your candidacy. Particularly if you are applying to a large organization where an HR professional is reviewing your résumé, you will be just fine without one.
In addition, if you are attending a career fair, an open house or any type of event where your paper résumé is being taken along with that of a large number of people, these are also instances where a cover letter is not required. We are traditionally instructed to staple the pages of a résumé but not the cover letter, and when you submit these paper documents at a large event, the two invariably get separated. Furthermore, because you have the opportunity to speak with members of the company, this interaction will tend to have more weight than a cover letter.
Long Live the Cover Letter
On the other end of the spectrum, if you work in a field where there is a notion surrounding a “tradition” or a “pedigree” (i.e. lawyer, doctor, in academia, at the Big 4, in corporate finance etc.) you must include a cover letter. Omitting one could be to your detriment. The reason being that including one connotes knowledge of the correct form, and implies that you are detail-oriented and willing to go the extra mile.
The other argument in favour of the cover letter is that you never know who is on the receiving end of your résumé and what their opinion is. I heard a hiring manager literally say once: “I don’t read cover letters, but if the person doesn’t include one, I won’t consider them.” You can debate back and forth whether this “right” or “wrong”, but the bottom line is that it’s out there and someone with this world view could have the final say as to whether or not you are hired or even interviewed. Is that a risk you are willing to take?
Diet Cover Letter and Cover letter 2.0
If someone you know is referring you to a position or if you are applying to a smaller company where you are sending your résumé to an email address as opposed to uploading it to an ATS, a cover email would be required. Considering what’s been said thus far, it’s up to your good judgement to determine if the cover email would replace your cover letter, as a sort of “diet” cover letter, or if you would use this as an introduction and attach both your résumé and cover letter to the email.
In my next article, I will go over what to include in your cover letter and cover email to bring them into the 21st century.