Real decision-making aid or disastrous cliché – How useful is the cover letter?

Some consider it meaningless and therefore superfluous; others still consider it a useful addition to the CV that primarily offers scope for explanation. Opinions differ on the question of necessity for a cover letter. We examine the pros and cons.



Advocates and opponents of the classic cover letter are engaged in an interesting exchange in the internet; and, even if, taking all arguments into account, the question of its usefulness can be answered with a clear “yes”, a different trend is shown in practice. More and more companies are dispensing with a cover letter in the job application and only asking for the candidate’s CV. Pioneers in this respect include Germany’s national rail operator Deutsche Bahn, which dispensed with an additional cover or motivation letter in 2018. Since then, many employers have taken this low-threshold application practice as an example.




There is no crowd to stand out from

This policy is understandable and not only welcomed by many applicants, who are in no way sorry to see the end of this unwelcome task. HR staff and hiring managers are also breathing a sigh of relief because reading the prose that normally ends in a disastrous cliché is above all a waste of time. From their point of view, the stringing together of flattering catchphrases provides little insight, let alone added value for the decision making process. Especially since the repetitive phrases used by applicants are usually internet templates and not their own thoughts. The differentiation sought with the cover letter – standing out from the crowd – rarely succeeds this way: on the one hand, because many cover letters only differ in the order of their standard phrases; and on the other hand, because the “crowd” from which the applicant needs to stand out from no longer exists.


Bad for the candidate experience

Skill shortages and the norms of an applicants’ market are forcing companies to make the candidate experience as positive as possible. Today, the employer needs to please the candidate and not the other way round. Companies that shine with simple, quick application processes score points right from the start and are therefore happy to dispense with the letter of motivation. In any case, often it hardly allows for any conclusions to be drawn about the candidate’s professional suitability. People who can conscientiously care for the sick, program excellently or juggle with figures at lightening speed do not demonstrate their professional skills with flawless spelling and an eloquent way of expressing themselves. Motivation and cultural fit are also better tested in a personal interview. So who benefits from a cover letter?


Applicants want the opportunity to present themselves

Surprisingly, a representative Forsa survey commissioned by Jobware shows that, despite the additional effort, many applicants do not wish to do without the opportunity to send a cover letter. Especially employees aged between 50 and 60 years of age (62 percent) would not apply without a cover letter. Among 18 to 34-year-olds it is still just under half (49 percent). It was also noticeable that only one in three women would forego a cover letter: the majority of those surveyed categorically opposed applications without a cover letter. The reason: the cover letter gives applicants an opportunity to present their skills and motivation for applying in addition to the CV. Employers who do without this information deprive applicants of an opportunity to present themselves in the best possible way.


For whom is the cover or motivation letter useful?

In fact there are a number of candidate situations where a cover letter can provide useful explanations and motivational reasons for which there is no space in the CV, for example:


↪️ for people looking for a career change

People who change industries do not normally have the background in their CV that is beneficial for the new job. The cover letter provides the necessary place to explain the personal reasons for the career change.


👋 in the event of redundancy, dismissal or unemployment

Dismissal always has negative connotations. But the reason for losing a job or being unemployed is not always due to the individual. A cover letter can provide further information about this.


👶 for career starters

The professional work experience of school leavers, apprentices and university graduates is limited and consequently their CVs are not very informative. What is more interesting are the future plans and career goals of these young applicants in an additional motivation letter or personal statement.


⤵️ on downshifting

Applicants who willingly give up a career and shift down a gear raise doubts about their resilience. However, this can be dispelled if the recruiter understands the motivation behind the decision. There is no room for this in the CV.




A healthy middle course

So there is still a clear ‘yes and no’ to the cover letter. There are many arguments in favour of the additional lines that many find so difficult to formulate. Those who sieze the opportunity can definitely enhance their application and make it more personal. However, those who just regurgitate trite phrases just because it is required, can save themselves and the recruiter valuable time. As if often the case, a healthy middle course achieves the goal. Companies that only offer the cover letter as an optional extra to the required documents keep the application process lean, but still provide applicants the opportunity to explain their motivation – especially if their career path is not straightforward or has gaps in it. Alternatives such as an application video, an application website or a pre-recorded video interview are also thinkable for those who find writing difficult. Ultimately, recruiters should decide what information they require to fill the job vacancy in question. If it is clearly the professional qualifications that count, the cover letter can be safely dispensed with.


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