Cover Letter: Must-Have or Has-Been?

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For decades, the let­ter has been con­sid­ered a req­ui­site part of any job appli­ca­tion. In just one page, it can pro­vide infor­ma­tion about an appli­cant beyond the resume’s brief, bul­let­ed list of job expe­ri­ences and degrees earned. It might high­light a spe­cif­ic pas­sion or spe­cial­ized skills that could launch a job can­di­date to the top of the short list of appli­ca­tions pulled for an inter­view.

But the cov­er let­ter’s sig­nif­i­cance appears to be wan­ing both inside and out­side of edu­ca­tion.

Just 26 per­cent of U.S. recruiters said they con­sid­ered cov­er let­ters impor­tant in the , accord­ing to the 2017 Job Seek­er Nation Study. And that was before the pan­dem­ic, the wide­spread intro­duc­tion of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and the near-uni­ver­sal use of online job sub­mis­sion platforms—all of which have had an impact on the way recruiters eval­u­ate job appli­ca­tions.

Does this mean that K‑12 job seek­ers can for­go craft­ing a cov­er let­ter to sub­mit with their appli­ca­tion this com­ing recruit­ment sea­son?

As with so many aspects of the job appli­ca­tion process, it’s not that straight­for­ward. Whether or not to sub­mit a cov­er let­ter appears to depend on a lot of factors—from the job you’re apply­ing for, to the appli­ca­tion process, to whom you ask. Here’s what the experts said.

Why demand is down: the pandemic, online apps, and hiring demands

Yvette Lee, knowl­edge advis­er for the Soci­ety for Human Resource Man­age­ment, that the COVID-era job mar­ket with plen­ti­ful open­ings but lim­it­ed appli­cants has­tened the cov­er let­ter’s demise.

“It made employ­ers reeval­u­ate every­thing, includ­ing how to attract a greater pool of job seek­ers,” she said. “ there was a rush to try to fill posi­tions, that prob­a­bly had an impact.”

Drop­ping the cov­er let­ter require­ment was one way to stream­line the appli­ca­tion process and get more peo­ple in the door quick­ly, Lee said.

Glen­da Henkel, asso­ciate direc­tor for career edu­ca­tion at Tow­son Uni­ver­si­ty, which pro­duces many of Mary­land’s teach­ers, agrees.

“The need [for teach­ers] has been so great that our stu­dents are being recruit­ed so imme­di­ate­ly and directly—they’re get­ting inter­views and offers before they even their teach­ing intern­ships,” she said.

For entry-lev­el teach­ers-in-train­ing apply­ing to a school dis­trict through a cen­tral­ized sys­tem, she added, a cov­er let­ter gen­er­al­ly is not expect­ed or .

That’s the case in Knox Coun­ty Schools in Knoxville, Tenn., a dis­trict that fills between 400 and 450 teach­ing posi­tions annu­al­ly. But the dis­trict sees more cov­er let­ters from first-time appli­cants straight out of col­lege than vet­er­an teach­ers.

Alex Mose­man, Knox Coun­ty’s exec­u­tive direc­tor of human resources tal­ent acqui­si­tion, said the dis­trict receives 100 per­cent of its job appli­ca­tions online. And while can­di­dates have an oppor­tu­ni­ty to upload a cov­er let­ter, there’s no spe­cif­ic prompt to do so.

But, Mose­man said, many first-time teach­ers do vol­un­tar­i­ly sub­mit one. Six­ty to 70 per­cent of first-time teach­ers com­ing straight from pro­grams sub­mit a cov­er let­ter, com­pared with only 10 to 15 per­cent of more expe­ri­enced teach­ers.

Recruiters are more likely to request cover letters for leadership positions

Henkel said that while new teach­ers may not be expect­ed to present cov­er let­ters, can­di­dates look­ing for more senior posi­tions should plan to write them. Appli­cants for lead­er­ship posi­tions want to con­vey how their expe­ri­ence, phi­los­o­phy, and approach will meld with those at the insti­tu­tion or dis­trict where they’re apply­ing, Henkel .

“These are dif­fer­ent roles, with dif­fer­ent prepa­ra­tion,” she said. “For these, a cov­er let­ter would be more appro­pri­ate and prob­a­bly expect­ed.”

In Knox Coun­ty, there’s a mul­ti-pronged appli­ca­tion process for can­di­dates seek­ing assis­tant prin­ci­pal or prin­ci­pal posi­tions that pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for both writ­ten and ver­bal input beyond the cov­er let­ter.

The dis­trict shares a video with can­di­dates that briefly intro­duces the dis­tric­t’s four main pri­or­i­ty areas: excel­lence in foun­da­tion­al skills, great edu­ca­tors in every school, career empow­er­ment and prepa­ra­tion, and suc­cess for every stu­dent. It then asks can­di­dates to pre­pare and sub­mi­ta writ­ten response based on the fol­low­ing two prompts: “In reflect­ing on your lead­er­ship expe­ri­ence, what is one pri­or­i­ty you feel is a strength for your school?” and “In reflect­ing on your lead­er­ship expe­ri­ence, what is one pri­or­i­ty area where you antic­i­pate need­ing addi­tion­al sup­port?”

Can­di­dates also are asked to record a ver­bal response to the fol­low­ing prompt: “As you con­sid­er join­ing the Knox Coun­ty School team, which of the four pri­or­i­ties is most excit­ing to you?”

The case for, and against, cover letters

Some­times, cov­er let­ters are irrel­e­vant, or worse, said Lee, of the Soci­ety for Human Resource Man­age­ment.

“In some cas­es, recruiters don’t read cov­er let­ters,” she said. Fur­ther, poor­ly writ­ten cov­er let­ters can count against a can­di­date, Lee point­ed out.

Mose­man said that the cov­er let­ters he sees typ­i­cal­ly are not spe­cif­ic enough to be par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful. This con­cern may increase as more job appli­cants turn to arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence to gen­er­ate manda­to­ry cov­er let­ters, which could raise a whole new set of ques­tions. “Employ­ers will be won­der­ing if this per­son has in fact gen­er­at­ed this let­ter per­son­al­ly, or has had assis­tance,” Henkel said.

Neg­a­tives aside, Henkel, from Tow­son Uni­ver­si­ty, believes that cov­er let­ters still have a role in the job appli­ca­tion process.

“I feel strong­ly about the well-writ­ten cov­er let­ter,” she said. “In many search­es I’ve been involved in, can­di­dates may not have looked like the best fit on their resume, but I have ral­lied for them based on a good, strong cov­er let­ter. And in the end, some have turned out to be excel­lent employ­ees.”

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