The truth about cover letters

Do cover letters hold the same importance they once did?

While the cover letter plays a different role to what it used to, it still remains an important one. Research for SEEK shows 83% of hirers finding cover letters useful to learn more about applicants. On the other hand, AI is becoming a mainstay on both sides of the job market – job seekers use it to help them apply for jobs, employers it to help them hire. How do cover letters fit in?

Here’s what the experts need you to know about cover letters and how to write a great one for the world we’re living in.   
The changing role of the cover letter

Cover letters were previously seen as just the starting page of your resumé. With AI increasingly used to scan applications, cover letters are becoming less an extension of your resumé and more a personal introduction.

Chelsea Hollins, talent acquisition specialist explains that job seekers should consider this changed role of cover letters when applying for roles.

“Cover letters are sometimes not considered to be as critical as they used to be,” she says, “but some companies and hiring managers still expect them, or use them to differentiate between someone who could do the job and someone who'll excel in a job.

They used to be mandatory for most job applications and acted as more of a summary of your resumé. Now they are an opportunity to tell your career story – which could include career breaks, career changes and of course, why you have the best skillset and experience for the role.”

Along with the role of cover letters changing, so too has the way they’re written – all thanks to AI. It’s easier than ever to generate content using AI, and an increasing number of jobseekers are turning to this technology to make their cover letters stand out.

However, research for SEEK found 21% of hirers think more negatively about candidates if they know they’ve used AI when applying for a job. So, while AI potentially has a place in streamlining and aiding in writing cover letters, it’s best to still exercise caution and common sense if going down this avenue.

Deborah Wilson, Head of Careers, Leadership Development & Consulting at OnTalent, believes that despite their evolving role, cover letters remain integral.

“Cover letters have changed but are predominantly still requested,” she says. “Why? Because the hiring person wants to get to know you.”

Cover letters based on the role

Wilson explains that several factors determine how vital a cover letter is.

“The importance of a cover letter varies depending on the level of the role, industry, company culture, and preferences of the hiring team,” she says.

“In some cases, like executive roles, they are considered essential. However, in others, especially where the hiring process is highly automated through AI, they may be less important, with greater emphasis being on the resumé.”

Benefits of a cover letter

With all that said, the experts highlight that a well-written cover letter can:

  • Fill in the gaps left by your resumé
    Hollins says cover letters help provide information that your resumé doesn't cover.
    “When recruiters are reviewing applications, questions can arise that cover letters may be able to answer,” she explains. “It can be a good opportunity to elaborate on gaps in your resumé, changes in your career or roles you weren’t in for very long.
    The last thing you want is a recruiter or hiring manager having lots of question marks on your resumé.”
    Wilson echoes this sentiment, emphasising the different roles of the cover letter and resumé.
    “Cover letters are a forward-thinking document where you provide context for your application, demonstrate your enthusiasm, and highlight specific experiences, skills and achievements relevant to the role you are applying,” she says. “Whereas a resumé provides a detailed overview of your professional background and qualifications outlining your suitability for the role.”
  • Set you apart
    Your cover letter lets you express why you’re the ideal person for the role. Hollins says it can take your application to the next level.
    “When you apply for a role, you’re potentially up against a hundred or more other job seekers, most of whom have similar or more experience than you,” she says. “A cover letter gives you the opportunity to sell yourself and talk about why you are the best person for the job.”

What employers look for in cover letters

Employers or recruiters read your cover letter to determine your reasons for submitting your application. Hollins advises to keep this in mind when writing yours.

“Your focus should be on explaining why you’re interested in this specific role and what parts of your experience and skillset makes you the best person for the job.”

Wilson adds that it’s not just about the contents of your cover letter, but how it’s written.

“We look for a professional tone that conveys enthusiasm for the role,” she says. “Being able to articulate the value you bring to the role, expressing your personal style and writing in an engaging and professional way is imperative.”

A professional standard of writing is important, but so is the quality of your content in your cover letter. Each letter needs to be written specifically for the role concerned to stand out from the rest.

You can do this by personalising your response directly to job ad requirements – which only 43% of job seekers do, according to research for SEEK.

“Tailor, tailor, tailor,” advises Wilson. “Write your letter from scratch and align to the role. Standard letters that are clearly not tailored are skimmed over and add no value. If someone puts in the effort to make their experience and potential stand out in the cover letter, they will catch the eye of the recruiter.”

Your cover letter checklist

Wilson offers the following advice when it comes to perfecting your cover letter:

  • Make sure your cover letter is tailored for the role and aligned with the role requirements and company culture.
  • Don’t just reword what’s already on your resumé. Use your cover letter to expand on key achievements and skills relevant to the role.
  • Express enthusiasm for the role and the company. Familiarise yourself with their mission, values and recent achievements, and incorporate this information to demonstrate your interest. 
  • Show understanding of the industry, challenges and goals. Explain how your skills and experiences will add value in addressing these issues.
  • Use a professional tone to keep it concise and relevant.
  • Format professionally and check grammar and spelling.

In today’s job seeking landscape, cover letters continue to be a vital tool for potential job seekers. Although they require a bit more time and effort, the reward of standing out and showing why you’re the best fit for the role can be well worth it.

Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4000 Kiwis annually. Published April 2024.

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