Cover letters added value in the 1900s, but what about today?

Cover letters emerged in the early 1900s as a way to collect additional information about work history. By the mid-20th century, requests for cover letters to accompany resumes were appearing in newspaper job classifieds. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, they became big business, with companies offering cover letter writing services for a fee. Soon after, technology solutions emerged that claimed to crack the code on writing the perfect resume and cover letter.

While print classifieds have fallen by the wayside in favor of online job boards, networking sites, social media, employee referral programs, recruitment events and more, many employers still require cover letters. But in today’s tech-driven world, where faster is better and efficiency is king, employers and job candidates alike are asking: are cover letters really necessary?

Factors shaping the cover letter debate

A lot has changed since cover letters emerged as an important recruiting tool over a century ago. Recruiting technology is more sophisticated. We use AI to assess potential candidates’ skills. The majority of employers have added social media recruiting, employee referrals, and a review of online footprints to their recruiting processes.

Human resources and recruiting functions are transforming to operate more efficiently and effectively, so that team members are freed up to invest their time and expertise in more strategic endeavors, like relationship building and defining the future of work. Time spent reviewing resumes and cover letters is (and should be) minimal at best.

With more jobs than available workers, candidates are in the driver’s seat, and they know it. Gen Zers have no interest in clunky or time-consuming application processes. Candidates are choosing where they want to work, instead of the other way around. Still, job seekers receive mixed messages about cover letters, with some sources asserting they are even more important than a resume and can set you apart from the competition.

A Recent Yello Poll about Cover Letters Reveals…

If the results of our recent poll is any indication, only about one-third of employers still require cover letters. Most employers don’t ask for one, or make it optional.

Experts weigh in on the value of cover letters

Google whether employers use cover letters as part of the hiring process and you’ll come across numerous responses, with most pointing to the decreasing value and use of cover letters. Even so, the answers fall across a wide spectrum, so we turned to a few talent acquisition professionals to ask for their personal take on whether the cover letter was still important. Here’s what they had to say:

“Save your time! It’s no different than listing an objective on your resume. We already know you want a job, especially since you more than likely applied to a role directly. Let your conversations and experiences tell your story.”

Jose Preza, Danaher Corporation University Recruiting

“People send them but I don’t typically review them unless I think it would provide further insight or answer a question I have about their experience

Kirsten Sanderford, Talent Acquisition Leader at ChemTreat

“Hiring managers will still ask for them. Not all, but many.”

Vicki Salemi, Monster Career Expert

“I personally rarely look at cover letters…The average recruiter spends an average of [seven] seconds per resume, so honing a resume is more important!”

Ally Van Deuren, Korn Ferry University Relations

Reasons to keep cover letters

Still, our research uncovered some interesting perspectives that support keeping the cover letter as part of the recruitment process.

For example, an article on Indeed’s blog points out that cover letters with the right information can help recruiters manage expectations of hiring managers looking for ’purple squirrels’ — or impossible sets of candidate criteria by helping to sell less-than-perfect candidates.

Still, others say determining whether to keep or get rid of cover letters depends on industry, geography and the size of your company. Smaller companies with lower volumes of applicants may have more time to review and consider the information included in cover letters.

Factors to consider before eliminating cover letters

Employers use recruitment software to automate candidate sourcing and communication processes. Candidates use technology to build cover letters and resumes and apply for open roles. There’s one thing technology can’t do: decide whether the cover letter adds any value to your recruitment process. That’s up to you.

To help you decide whether cover letters should be part of your hiring process, consider:

  1. Why does your organization require cover letters? What value do they fill? How are they used? Is anyone reviewing them?  
  2. Are there other approaches you can use to obtain information typically found in a cover letter (i.e., looking at candidates’ social media footprints or use AI to assess soft skills)?
  3. Are there other ways you can ask for additional application materials? (i.e., request links to a portfolio of work or letters of recommendation)
  4. Are they causing you to lose candidates/are people dropping out of your application process because of them?

For additional insights, consider partnering with your recruitment operations team (if your organization has one) or conducting your own research to determine the pros and cons of requiring cover letters. Survey whether anyone involved in hiring looks at cover letters, how long they spend reviewing them and what value they provide. Also consider conducting pilots for certain positions where you don’t ask for a cover letter to learn if the elimination has any effects on hiring processes and outcomes.