What is a cover letter?


A cover letter is a one-page document submitted by a job candidate alongside a CV.

A cover letter is usually a one-page document that is submitted alongside a CV in the initial stages of recruitment. A well-written cover letter expands on the information in a candidate’s CV and demonstrates how their skills and experience align with the role in question.

History of cover letters

The first recorded mention of the cover letter dates back to the 1930s. Originally used in the financial sector, cover letters were sent alongside investment consultant’s datasets to reassure the banks by providing insight into the minds, motivation and character of those charged with investment responsibilities.

The first time a cover letter was used in the context of the recruitment process is thought to have been in 1956, in an advertisement for an Industrial Paint Chemist position. Since then, the cover letter has become a recurring feature of the recruitment process, as it gives candidates the opportunity to not only explain more about their experience, but about themselves.

Recent cover letter trends

In recent years the cover letter has become less important. Many employers don’t require one and some hiring managers don’t read them, which has led to questions around whether the cover letter is dead. While it is often now left for the candidate to decide whether to write one, a cover letter does still provide a useful opportunity to enhance their ‘personal branding’.

A personal brand consists of a candidate’s strongest attributes and often includes some variation of a mission, vision and values statement. By connecting a candidate’s skills and experience to their personal brand, the cover letter showcases how the candidate aligns with the requirements of the role and the company at large.

Storytelling, along with personal branding, can make a candidate’s cover letter stand out. Rather than following the standard format found in various guides and resources, many candidates now incorporate personal stories and anecdotes within their cover letter to showcase their personalities – as hiring managers are more likely to remember a cover letter with an interesting story, than one that simply lists a candidate’s skills and experience.

While cover letters are intended for hiring managers to learn more about candidates, candidates also need to demonstrate that they have taken the time to learn about the company. As such, researching potential employers through company websites, LinkedIn and other online resources has become customary in recent years. This research can range from the company’s recent work to their posts on social media, mission statement, philanthropy efforts and more. This information is then weaved into a candidate’s cover letter to show that they have a thorough understanding of the company.

Some candidates have also started conducting research to find their cover letter’s recipient for added personalisation. Thanks to LinkedIn, applicants can now see the profile of the hiring manager or employee that posted the job advertisement and address their letter to that individual. If the job was not posted on LinkedIn, candidates can still use the online platform as a tool to search for the hiring manager on the company’s page.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and ChatGPT have added some ease to the writing process. While such programmes cannot account for personal anecdotes or personalisation, ChatGPT can build the basic structure of an applicant’s cover letter. All candidates must do is provide instruction, such as ‘write a cover letter for a Data Analyst role in a conversational tone, using my CV as a reference’, and paste in their most recent CV. Once Chat GPT has created a template, candidates can go through and add in their stories, research and other personal touches.

Advantages of writing a cover letter

  • Writing a cover letter shows that a candidate is committed to taking the necessary steps to get the job.
  • Cover letters enable candidates to show a bit more of themselves than is possible in a CV and to provide some insight into their personalities.
  • While cover letters may not be required for all job postings, they can be a deciding factor in the hiring process, as candidates who choose to include an optional cover letter may stand out to employers.

Disadvantages of writing a cover letter

  • While some recruiters and hiring managers do read cover letters, some skip directly to a candidate’s CV, meaning that a candidate’s cover letter may be left unread.
  • Writing a cover letter can often be a time-consuming process, due to the level of research and personalisation that is now required.

Use case

While some STEM employers have removed cover letters from the application process, many companies, including Apple, have continued to accept them. In addition to a cover letter, Apple allows candidates to submit a portfolio, letters of recommendation and any other additional files the candidate may wish to provide.