Do I Need to Include a Cover Letter with an Electronic Application?

MP900309656Over the past two decades, technology has changed the job application process. For young graduates seeking their first job out of college, this is the norm. But for mid-career professionals transitioning to their second or third career, this requires some radical adjustments.  

Either way, you have to be prepared for robots called Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to evaluate your resume to determine if it’s worthy of being read by human eyes, you have to closely follow online instructions for each and every application, and you have to be prepared to upload all job search documents electronically.  

This brings us to the question: when the electronic application system asks you to upload your “resume” with no mention of a “cover letter,” what do you do?  

Conventional wisdom is to always include a cover letter with your application–in the body of an email, as “additional documents” in electronic applications, even as a first page on a single document called “resume.”

The cover letter is your chance to tell a few short, clear, concise stories that illustrate that you are a perfect fit for the company and position–without simply repeating the content of your resume.  And adding it to a single document and uploading it as your resume makes the cover letter an opportunity to provide even more key words for the ATS to pick up on (if the ATS is programmed to read the entire document and not just a single page). 

But I’ve talked to employers who use the application process as the first test of whether  candidates can follow instructions–and if the instructions say, “upload resume” they don’t want a full page of text preceding it.

In most cases, there is a way to include the same content contained in a cover letter even if there is not an explicit place to upload something called “cover letter.”

This is one of the changes technology introduces: while a cover letter might not be explicitly requested, you have to look for opportunities to include those anecdotes that show that you are the standout candidate. For example, can you put the typical cover letter content in:

  • a personal statement
  • an additional document
  • the body of an email
  • an answer to a posted question such as, “why do you want to work here?” or “what professional experiences do you have that aligns with our stated mission and vision?”

So the answer to, “Do I need to include a cover letter with a an electronic application?” is “It depends.”

If there is any way to include it within the system, then, yes!, include it.  Remember, technology has changed the way we apply for jobs, but not the fundamentals of what we must include in an application.

Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a campus workshop, contact Darcy:
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