Leonardo da Vinci may have created the first curriculum vitae when he applied for a job as the Duke of Milan. Cover letters, however, are a more recent invention. Cover letters served as a formal introduction for the person behind the dry facts of the résumé and provided an example of their letter-writing skills.
But cover letters have changed over time. Now they are often in the body of an email, and much briefer. Since the résumé itself is highly customized, fewer skills and accomplishments are listed in a cover letter. Today, most jobs do not require writing long, formal letters to demonstrate a candidate’s writing skills.
So when considering whether to write and send a cover letter in 2022, what should you keep in mind?
When requested. If a job advertisement or a potential employer asks for a cover letter, you should include one. Job ads may ask you to include information like what appealed to you about the job opening or company or to detail the most significant accomplishment in your career. These questions used to be asked in the interview but are now moving earlier in the process. Requesting a cover letter can also be a way to weed out candidates who do not pay attention to details and don’t include one.
Special circumstances. Sometimes you have specific needs or nonnegotiable qualities. Maybe you will only work 100% virtually, or you plan to relocate to a specific city. None of these requirements would appear on a résumé or CV, but a cover letter can be the perfect place to convey your requirements to potential employers and avoid wasting everyone’s time. You could also use a cover letter to explain a gap in your employment history, provide context on a mismatch of your background and current interests, or explain why you are changing fields.
Entry-level positions. Today, as many as 98% of entry-level positions are initially screened by artificial intelligence, which rarely considers information in cover letters. If “taleo” or “workday” appears in a job-ad URL, an algorithm will likely do the prescreening. However, if your résumé passes the AI screening and ranking, a cover letter might be read by the hiring manager.
Senior or leadership positions. In an application for a senior or leadership position, a cover letter can explain your broader vision for the position or the organization and provide an overview of how your experience is ideal.
Applying for jobs should be as efficient as possible. However, potential employers need to understand not only your skills but also your vision, interest, and enthusiasm. A cover letter could be the right way to convey how your passion, values, and credentials make you a perfect match.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.