The cover letter is a much cussed and discussed document in a job search. It can be very helpful, or it can hurt your cause.
In our searches, we see cover letters only about 20 percent of the time. Typically, candidates send only their resume. Candidates who do not include a cover letter with their submission are not disadvantaged by that choice.
When you are sending your resume to a targeted potential employer, the cover letter is a useful tool for an introduction and a brief summary of your experience and skills. Personalizing it to the company to which you are submitting the information is always a good idea, specifically if you have job or role in mind and want to reaffirm your relevant experience and associated quantifiable accomplishments. It also explains why you are interested in working for that particular enterprise.
When you are solicited by a search firm, or if you are responding to a search posting, the cover letter is less important on the front end of the process. Let me explain. Let’s assume we are leading a search for a CEO of a 200-bed hospital. Typically there will be significant interest in this type of position. Recruiters may receive 60 or 70 resumes from a “matter of record” job posting plus those candidate resumes they solicit through their own networks. In other words, for many searches it quickly becomes a crowded field of executives, all vying for the attention of the person making the decisions.
When faced with so many candidates the recruiter’s first goal is to eliminate those who are clearly not qualified. From that point, the researchers and recruiters winnow the list down to a more manageable pool for screening and followup interviews. From a field of 75 candidates they will want to have a working panel of only 20 to 30. To get to that point they quickly focus only on the resume. If the candidate’s experience and skills are not a fit, then reading a cover letter is superfluous and an inefficient use of time.
Cover letters can occasionally work against a candidate. For example, if a candidate elects to emphasize essential skills and accomplishments desired by the client that are not included in the resume, this strategy will not help them win a more thorough review. Candidates should avoid that mistake at all costs. It makes no sense to incorporate essential skills and experience in a cover letter that are not listed in the resume. I have seen that happen in a couple of searches. In one search our Firm was looking for a candidate with extensive experience supervising a unionized work force, with a demonstrated record of success in contract negotiations and prevailing in grievance filings. An otherwise qualified candidate did not list that critical experience in his resume. He made reference to his union experience in his cover letter which was not reviewed in the initial candidate screening because of the sheer number of candidate submissions. The reason: he decided to eliminate some information so as to keep his resume within a two-page rule and relied on the cover letter to mention those issues. There is no such rule.
As an engagement partner, I never look at cover letters unless a candidate is selected for an in-depth interview that I am conducting.
I have seen some candidates send a letter to our firm prior to the second round of interviews, emphasizing how their experience and accomplishments will benefit the prospective employer. In reality, that approach makes more sense to me.
In summary, unless specifically requested by an employer or their representatives in the employment process, a cover letter is not essential.