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Breaking Down the Cover Letter: Essential or Outdated?

Written by: Elizabeth Heubeck
Published on: Apr 11, 2024

Cover Letter

- iStock/Getty

For decades, the cover 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 hiring process, 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, believes 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. “When 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 finish 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 required.

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 undergraduate 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 will want to convey how their experience, philosophy, and approach will meld with those at the institution or district where they’re applying, Henkel explained.

“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 submit a 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.”