When (and When Not) to Include a Cover Letter

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Do you really need a cover letter if a company doesn't ask for one? Composing a lot of cover letters during a job search can be challenging and time-consuming. Because of this, it's not surprising that applicants often hesitate to include a cover letter when it is not explicitly required by an employer.

If you're wondering if you should include a cover letter, the short answer is yes. You should almost always submit a cover letter, even if it is not required, but there are a few exceptions.

First, let's look at why cover letters have value.

Why Write a Cover Letter?

If you're serious about landing the job, a well-written cover letter gives you a chance to sell yourself to the employer in a narrative format, and explain why you are an ideal candidate. A cover letter also affords you the opportunity to highlight your strongest qualifications.

An effective, customized cover letter will also make it clear that you are highly interested in the job. That's because it shows the hiring manager that you want the job enough to take the time to go the extra distance.

A cover letter also gives you an opportunity to include details that your resume does not contain. For example, if you are applying from a distance, your cover letter will enable you to present a rationale for relocation and to mention that you will be in the area shortly for a possible interview. Gaps in employment with reasonable explanations can also be addressed in your letter. A cover letter is also an ideal place to provide specific examples that prove you have the skills and experience listed on your resume.

Additionally, employers often expect to receive cover letters even though they did not stipulate the need for a cover letter in their job advertisements. Candidates who don't take the time to compose a letter are often viewed as less motivated for the job. In many cases, employers won't even look at a job application that doesn't contain a cover letter or letter of interest.

When Not to Include a Cover Letter

No letter is much better than a poorly written one. A well-composed cover letter serves as a sample of your writing ability but, unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If you don't have time to write a well-crafted cover letter that pitches your skills and positions you for the job, forego the effort.

Likewise, if the job application instructs that you should not include a cover letter, then it's definitely best to follow directions so as not to annoy your potential employer.

Also, if the company asks you to submit your application through an online platform, and there is no place for you to submit a cover letter, don't worry about it. 

Writing Tips

  • Write a targeted cover letter. Be sure to write a targeted letter. This is a cover letter written with the job listing in mind. Focus on the skills and abilities that you possess that make you a strong fit for the specific job.
  • Keep it short. Make sure that your letters are concise (no more than one page topping out at five paragraphs) and that every statement you make conveys something significant about your qualifications for the candidacy.
  • Go beyond the resume. Avoid simply repeating your resume. Provide examples not listed in your resume, and expand upon things mentioned only briefly in your resume. Your cover letter should have a distinct purpose in regards to your application.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Errors in your cover letter can hurt your chances of getting an interview. Errors make you look sloppy, or worse, not educated. Be sure to thoroughly read your letter before submitting it. Consider asking a friend or colleague to read it as well to check for typos, grammatical errors, and confusing language.