What’s the cover letter’s purpose? That’s a question you might be asking when yet another job ad asks you to attach a cover letter after you’ve completed a 20-field form. And you are right — the rationale behind asking for a cover letter isn’t always clear. Still, it’s a job application tool that you can use to your advantage.
So What Is the Purpose of a Cover Letter?
The main purpose of a cover letter is to introduce the person behind the work experience, listed on a resume. Think of your resume as a ‘menu’ — aka an overview of all the good stuff you have to offer as a candidate. Your cover letter, in turn, is a ‘marketing leaflet’ that provides extra context to your strengths and explains who you are as a person.
In the past, a cover letter served the perfunctory purpose of making an ‘official’ introduction and reiterating your interest, skills, strengths, and accomplishments.
These days, most recruiters favor shorter email cover letters that also let the candidates’ personalities shine through. Most recruiters also put a greater emphasis on the candidate’s online presence — LinkedIn profile, portfolio, GitHub profiles, or bylined articles.
A 2021 survey by Ellevate found that 61% of recruiters say that “cover letters don’t matter”, while 31% said they do. A former recruiter for Apple and Inuit also said that
“[Cover letters] are already starting to die. They’re on their way out. Let’s just cut them out and be done with it”.
But that’s just one camp. Data from iHire suggests that for 65% of recruiters cover letters are still important. Yet, an equal number of HRs (65%), prefer to use pre-screening questions on online job application forms over a standard cover letter.
At the same time, Lynda Spiegel is a job search coach and resume writer, also noted that a well-written cover letter can land you extra points with an applicant tracking system (ATS). Such software is programmed to look for specific keywords. If your cover letter and resume have them, you’ll rank higher than other applicants. That’s why you should always customize your cover letter to the job you apply for.
What Are the Two Reasons Companies Ask for a Cover Letter?
Though many companies are replacing formal cover letters with emails and applicant questionnaires, some still ask for a standard cover letter. The two main reasons for that are habit and genuine interest.
Smaller employers that receive fewer applications usually take the time to read a cover letter. So do many educational and government organizations. They treat a cover letter as a ‘courtesy’ gesture of making an introduction and providing some extra details about your professional background.
Some employers also use the ‘optional cover letter’ clause as a quick way to weed out casual applicants from those who are truly interested in working with their company.
Finally, a cover letter — or a letter of interest — can help you get your foot into the door and get considered for the so-called ‘hidden job market’ opportunities. These are non-publicly advertised job opportunities a company has. Likewise, a persuasive cover letter may land you a conversation with a recruiter and even land you a newly-created position.
What Are The Key Elements of a Cover Letter?
The standard cover letter format has four elements — header (if submitted as a separate document), introductory paragraph, main body, and conclusion.
Formal cover letters — printed or submitted as an attached document — usually include a formal header area. It’s an old-fashioned courtesy from the days when cover letters were *gasp* physically mailed. Though some academic institutions and federal agencies still prefer this format:
Date of Letter
City, State, Zip Code
Overall, feel free to drop this bit if you’re sending the letter digitally.
Your cover letter opening line sets the tone and mood of the conversation. So make it impactful.
A good way to start a cover letter is by:
- Sharing an accomplishment
- Showing your passion for the role
- Mentioning a connection to the company
- Pumping up your interest in the employer
Keep your cover letter introduction at 2-3 short sentences max.
The body of a cover letter is where you build up the case for hiring you. Use this space to articulate:
- Why you are a good fit for the job
- What value you can bring to the company
- Factors that make you more competitive than other applicants
Read more about cover letter writing techniques.
You should end your cover letter on a high note. Instead of the standard “please see my attached resume”, choose a more action-oriented phrase — a call-to-action.
For example, you can prompt the reader to:
- Connect on LinkedIn
- Schedule a phone or video interview
- Discuss the next steps
- Or even take action on a suggestion you’ve made
Read more about how to close a cover letter.
Cover Letter Format Example
City, State, Zip Code
Introduction: Add two quick sentences on why you are interested in the job and what you can offer.
Paragraph 1: Quickly explain your most marketable skills and elaborate on a major accomplishment.
Paragraph 2: Communicate why you consider yourself to be a good fit and provide some background into your personality (as a way to promote some soft skills).
Conclusion: Add a compelling one-line, prompting the next steps.