Cover letter: no longer up to date, or is it?

Many companies now refrain from requiring a cover letter. Too many empty phrases, too time-consuming, not meaningful enough. But this approach is still not without controversy. Therefore, the question arises: cover letter, yes or no?

Deutsche Bahn has shown the way. Since mid-2018, the company has refrained from requesting cover letters. The reason: Deutsche Bahn wants to recruit more than 19,000 new employees, as a large part of the workforce will be retiring in the foreseeable future. To ensure that this succeeds, the hurdles for an application should be kept as low as possible. Instead, only a resume and references now need to be submitted on an online platform. The success proves the railroad right: Just a few months after this measure was announced, the number of applications increased significantly: It increased by 10% compared to the same period of the previous year. Other companies are doing the same as Deutsche Bahn and are dispensing with cover letters.

Cover letter: more appearance than reality?

The basic idea behind a cover letter is simple: cover letters help companies learn more about applicants’ skills, motivation, and spelling abilities. But in reality, this usually looks different. Instead of taking the opportunity to reveal more about their own strengths, many applicants find it rather difficult to do so. A large number of cover letters are peppered with empty phrases: Instead of responding individually to the job advertisement, the company and the necessary requirements, generic cover letters are used that fit any and no company. Listing attributes such as the ability to work in a team, flexibility and resilience does not mean more information for recruiters, but only additional work. Accordingly little time is therefore usually taken for the review of the application letters.

In addition, arguments such as testing spelling skills do not translate well into action. Meanwhile, it is easy to download ready-made patterns from the Internet. Moreover, application letters are usually corrected or even written by girlfriends, friends or family members. But not everyone has access to such a network, which puts them at a competitive disadvantage. Furthermore, perfect spelling skills are never wrong, but by no means indispensable in every profession. This is how companies deprive themselves of top candidates who have all the required skills, but show weaknesses in writing cover letters. Especially in technical professions, hard skills should be much more significant.

Seize the opportunity

However, depending on your personal resume, cover letters can also make the difference. In the case of a resume with gaps, the cover letter provides an opportunity to provide relevant additional information. Career changers are also more likely to have the opportunity to show why they are seeking a career change with a cover letter. If positions require special language skills, these can be outlined as part of the cover letter. In addition, the cover letter offers the opportunity to take a closer look at your own skills, the job posting and the company before applying, and to find out whether the job is really the right one for you. Doing away with cover letters, on the other hand, invites inflationary job applications because the effort required is now minimal.

But it’s not just legacy companies that need to address their existing application processes. Start-ups facing the challenge of saturating an increasing demand for employees while at the same time lacking brand awareness must also convince with modern methods of recruiting. While it used to be the candidates who vied for the jobs, today it is usually the other way around due to the shortage of skilled workers: Now it is the companies that have to convince the applicants of their merits, and a positive candidate experience also includes an applicant-friendly application process.

Cover letter: more than a chronological list

For most recruiters, a face-to-face interview or mock interview is much more informative than a cover letter. However, as it would be too time-consuming to do this with all applicants, another pre-selection criterion is still needed. Since the skills of applicants are the most important factor in assessing them, projects and activities gathered in previous jobs come to the fore. It therefore makes sense not only to list the individual stages of your career to date in your CV, but also to include job descriptions and to place emphasis on projects, responsibilities and skills.

There are also plenty of other alternatives, such as one-click applications. Here, it is sufficient to first submit only the Xing or LinkedIn profile or a resume instead of an elaborate application. Nor should companies disregard the possibility of proactively approaching potential candidates using active sourcing methods and thus gaining an advantage in the war for talent.

Basic rules for a good cover letter

If companies still require traditional cover letters, there are a few simple ground rules that applicants should follow. The first rule: There is no such thing as the perfect cover letter. Each job has its own requirements. Therefore, you should refrain from using the same cover letter over and over again and only exchange the contact information. Instead, the company and job advertisement should be studied carefully and personal experience and strengths should be reflected with reference to them. Also, insubstantial phrases do not belong in a cover letter. However, the cover letter is the ideal opportunity to stand out from the crowd, provide evidence of soft skills, and explain individual points in the resume in more detail. This opportunity should be seized. The composition of a cover letter is now facilitated by simple design templates that provide a clear structure that does not distract from the content. Also, the cover letter should not be too long, but usually not exceed one page. 

Cover letters can be both a curse and a blessing. Done well, they can add real value. However, if they consist only of phrases and platitudes, they cost time above all. Therefore, companies should always decide, depending on the job, whether a cover letter is actually useful. Moreover, they should not close their minds to the alternatives that already exist and those that are still emerging, but should weigh what is the most sensible procedure for all parties involved.


As part of our career counseling service, we support applicants in compiling professional documents. Information about this we have  here  compiled.

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