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5 Reasons You Should Write a Cover Letter—Even When the Job Description Says It’s Optional

This post was originally published by The Muse and was written by Regina Borsellino.

Person holding a cup of coffee that reads "Busy Introverting"
Credit: Getty Images via The Muse

We get it. Writing a cover letter for every application is hard. So when you come across the words “cover letter optional” on a job posting, you might feel a weight lift off of you. After all, your application just got a lot easier...right?

But you might still have a nagging feeling. Would it be better to submit a cover letter even if you don’t have to? Is this some kind of test, where including a cover letter is what will get you to the next round??

Only 26% of recruiters will “deduct points” from candidates who don’t include an optional cover letter, according to a survey conducted by ResumeGo. But many, though not all, hiring professionals still read and consider cover letters. And you don’t know what the particular recruiter or hiring manager for this job will do.

Think about it this way, though: Including a well-written cover letter will pretty much never hurt your application. So while I totally understand the urge to skip this step, there are some things a cover letter can do that your resume just can’t—or at least not nearly as well.

Here are five reasons to reconsider and write a cover letter anyway:

1. Taking the Time to Write a Cover Letter Shows You Care About This Position

Online portals have created a self-perpetuating cycle: It’s easier and faster than ever before to apply for a job. That means most job openings receive a lot of interest. When you’re part of a bigger pool, your odds of getting hired for a given position go down, meaning you have to submit more applications, and the cycle goes on and on and on...

So you might feel like it’s a numbers game and you need to submit as many resumes as possible, hoping you’ll get lucky. If you're in this situation, writing a cover letter might feel like an unnecessary time suck. But that’s exactly why it could be the thing that sets you apart. Submitting a cover letter even when it’s optional shows employers that you cared enough about their job that you took an extra step to craft something, says Muse career coach Eliot Kaplan, who spent 18 years as VP of Talent Acquisition at Hearst Magazines before founding Eliot Kaplan Coaching.

With everyone playing the same numbers game, plenty of job seekers don’t take the time to write cover letters nowadays, so writing one sends the message: Hey, I took some time to actually think about this job. You’re not just an “easy apply” button to me.

2. You Can Inject Some Life and Personality Into Your Application

When employers are making a hire, they’re definitely reading your resume to evaluate your skills and experiences. But they’re also looking for someone they’ll enjoy spending a significant portion of their time around, says Karen Gordon, VP of Growth for Goodshuffle Pro. “At the end of the day, I am looking for someone who is going to add value and personality to the team.” And if everyone applying for a job has similar qualifications, showing off your personality or giving some insight into your background in a cover letter is a way to differentiate yourself from the sea of applicants, Kaplan says.

3. You Can Tell Employers Why You’re the Perfect Fit for the Job

Have you ever come across an open job and thought, “Wow, this is exactly what I should be doing!“? You’ll definitely want to convey that to the employer. But even if you tailor your resume for each application—which you can and should do—it doesn’t tell the person reading it why you decided to apply and why you’re the right hire. A cover letter can. How? By directly connecting your skills, experience, passions, and goals to the job in question and providing additional details about your most relevant qualifications.

Also, while you can tailor your resume to an individual job, you can tailor your cover letter to the job and the company, Kaplan says. You can show that you understand an organization’s goals and values and what you can bring to them: Can you solve a problem they’re having? Have you excelled at the responsibilities they’d need you to take on? Are you super excited about something they’re doing? Basically, writing a cover letter is saying, “I like you, here’s why you should like me,” Kaplan says.

If you can’t think of anything to say about this specific job, you might want to reconsider applying at all, Kaplan says. You should be able to answer questions like “Why do you want this job?”, “Why do you want to work at this company?”, and “Why should we hire you?” in the cover letter stage. Otherwise, how do you think you’d fare in an interview? This might be a sign you’re not actually all that interested and you can move on—saving yourself even more time.

4. You Shouldn’t Skip an Opportunity to Show Off Your Skills

Getting your hard skills on a resume is relatively straightforward, but talking about your soft skills can be, well...hard. For example, as someone who hires for a small startup, Gordon says, “we need people who are the perfect combination of dreamers and get-er-doners who will go above and beyond their role and work to bring the dream to fruition.” So, sure, you could say that you’re “self-motivated” on your resume or try to get these qualities across in a short bullet point, but in a cover letter you can tell the story of the time you noticed a dip in sales around the holidays so you brought your idea for a winter-themed campaign to marketing.

Your cover letter is also a space where you can demonstrate your skills, not just talk about them. For jobs where writing and messaging are paramount—such as editing, journalism, and marketing—your cover letter is a work sample that shows how well you can do the job. Even if you’re not in one of these fields, a well-written cover letter displays communication skills, which are important for any job where you’ll be interacting with others in any way or capacity—in other words, almost every job. “Formats and systems for communication have changed—but the need for clear, concise, and impactful communication has not,” says Glen Muñoz, who has worked—and hired—in marketing and operations for over 30 years.

The way you write your cover letter can also demonstrate less obvious soft skills like creativity, persuasion, organization, or attention to detail, Kaplan says.

5. You Can Clear Up Any Questions About Your Resume

Cover letters are the ideal spot to give some needed context about any unique circumstances surrounding your job search. If there’s something on your resume or application that you’re worried about or that might leave whoever reads it with questions, including an optional cover letter gives you a chance to explain and could get you to the next round when your resume alone would have been rejected.

Some situations you might want to explain with a cover letter include:

  • Career transitions

  • Employment gaps (such as having been a stay-at-home parent)

  • Nonlinear career paths

  • Out-of-area applications

  • Personal connections to a company or job referrals

  • Less traditional education or experience

So when it comes to including an optional cover letter, the choice is yours. And let’s be realistic: It might be a decision you make on a case-by-case basis depending on what the job actually is, how enthusiastic you are about it, and what your personal bandwidth is when you’re applying. (No cover letter is obviously better than no application.) But you definitely shouldn’t read “cover letter optional” and assume that means a cover letter won’t help you land the job.

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