Is an Optional Cover Letter Really Optional?

Many employers have optional fields to submit a cover letter when completing online job applications. Here is what that really means for you when applying to those positions. 

Why do some job applications have optional cover letters?

Many employers have optional fields to submit a cover letter when completing online job applications. This causes all kinds of questions for most jobseekers. Will it actually be read if I submit a letter? If I don't submit a letter, will it be viewed poorly? Here are the answers to these questions and more:

Why does the Employer Make the Cover Letter Optional?

The decision to require a cover letter or not can really depend on the company, the hiring manager, the recruiter, and their applicant tracking system (ATS). These factors can all come into play when an online job application includes this "optional" field.

First, the organization may have decided that the cover letter should be optional. In that case, the human resources department has probably decided to leave it up to the candidates and the hiring managers about whether and how the cover letter will be viewed.

Second, this "option" could be the result of the applicant tracking system's job board functionality. In some cases, the company may simply be using the preset defaults of the ATS which have established the "optional" nature of the cover letter submission. It could also be that the recruiter who published the job on the job board of the company decided to make the cover letter optional. They may not want one, but they may also not know if the hiring manager wants one. So, they leave it up to the candidate to decide whether or not to submit the letter.

Third, it could be an intentional decision by everyone involved to leave it to the candidate. The people involved in the talent acquisition process don't want to prevent someone from submitting a cover letter if it will help their application. But, they may also not care if the cover letter is submitted.

Regardless of the reason, the best bet is to take advantage of the option - if it helps your application. A strong cover letter will tell your story and answer the question why? Why are you applying to this job and why are you a good fit? A strategic candidate will also use this as an opportunity to answer the obvious questions /reservations that may hold back their application. Want to know more about what to include in the cover letter? Check out this blog for tips.

What happens if I choose NOT to submit the optional cover letter?

People decide to not submit cover letters when they are optional for a lot of different reasons. Recruiters and hiring managers understand this. So, it won't always be viewed negatively if you elect not to submit a cover letter when applying.

Thus, the decision NOT to submit a cover letter when it is optional is totally ok. It won't typically have an effect on your application. But, it will have practical impacts. For example, if you have gaps on your resume, then you can expect that if you get an interview, that you will get asked questions about it. This may distract the recruiter or you may not even get the interview because of it. Thus, if you can do the cover letter well and answer those obvious questions, then you are probably well served in doing so.

But, it is important to remember that the average job seeker spends about 1 hour on EACH and EVERY SINGLE job application. Studies consistently show that employers will, on average, spend about 1 minute reviewing your application. That time difference is HUGE. So, remember that more time on the cover letter will not always pay-off. And, if time is limited, then make sure you are focusing your time for job applications in the areas where you get the most impact.  

Will My Cover Letter Be Read if it is Optional?

The real answer to whether someone will read your optional cover letter is probably no. Recruiters and hiring managers are busy. They are reviewing countless applications and they have other jobs to do. You are likely spending way more time in reading your application materials than anyone else ever will, period.

Ok, But Why Would Someone Decide to Look at at My Optional Cover Letter?

They probably won't read it word for word. Instead, hiring managers and recruiters will skim it if they decide to take a look at your cover letter. On average, you will get about 6 seconds to grab their attention. And, they will be looking for answers to questions or information that they can't find on your resume. So, make sure that your cover letter tells the story in a way that some can quickly find what they want if you decide to submit an optional cover letter.

What if the Optional Cover Letter is a Field for Text and Not a Place to Upload a File?

The ATS can only do so much. Some, will do less than others. So, in many cases you will see job applications that enable people to enter text for a cover letter rather than to upload a file. Or, that text box on the online job application will ask for "Anything Else" or some other generic descriptor. In either case, your best bet is to get right to the point. You can assume that this field won't be parsed for keywords. Instead, answer the question of why? Say explicitly why you are applying, why you are a good fit for the role, and why you want the position. The length of this text will depend on the character or word limits of the field. So, a smart strategy for most people is to have a short, medium, and longer version of this text to quickly copy/paste when applying. This way you won't have to reinvent the wheel each time.

The decision to submit an optional cover letter is exactly that - a strategy call that you have to make based on the specifics of a job. A bad cover letter will kill your job application. But, a well-crafted cover letter can make a difference in your application. Remember, the cover letter is optional for a number of reasons. So, don't spend too much time on it. But, do choose to submit one if it will help your application for the particular job.

Don't have time to build cover letters? Have a professional cover letter writer build all of your letters for you. Learn more about our unlimited cover letters.