The cover letter – duty or freestyle?

by | 31.10.2019

Otto does not require a cover letter for applications. The Baur Versand and Sportscheck also. And Deutsche Bahn reported in spring 2019: 10 percent more applicants without a cover letter.¹ Companies find it difficult to find new employees and are therefore breaking new ground. They make the application process easier for everyone involved; applicants are freed from an unpleasant task and personnel departments have to sift through fewer documents. Is this a win-win situation and a procedure that is suitable for other companies? Or is it more of a lose-lose scenario, in which a company forgoes an essential element in the selection of candidates and applicants miss a good opportunity to position themselves? What is the cover letter for applications? Duty or freestyle?

The competition of resumes

What happens with an application without a cover letter? The CVs of the applicants compete with each other.  The best CV wins. In many cases, this is the person who names the more impressive employers and roles, or who shows several languages and short study periods. Perhaps you now think that in your company this is handled differently by reading between the lines. And indeed, CVs do not only show previous employers, roles, activities and time periods. Also the frequency of job changes, promotion to hierarchies, the increase in responsibility, etc. are – if available – usually relatively easy to recognise. Interestingly, we usually evaluate people and information about people directly. Here is an example:

  • There are two external applicants for a position with you; a 62-year-old and a 42-year-old candidate.
  • Applicant A had five jobs in the last two years, applicant B one employer in the last 12 years.
  • Which of the two applicants is probably more reliable, who says his opinion more often and who can adapt better?

I suppose you would answer the questions differently than I do. Each of us has his or her own perspective, resume and story. In addition, there is the concrete context of the position to be filled, implicit expectations of the new employee and experiences with your own company. This leads to different images and different opinions about the candidates. This is neither bad nor good, it is normal. We tend to evaluate and classify information. And we interpret information. Example: How old is candidate A: 62 or 42 years?

The blah-blah letter

“… Increasing complexity combined with the short product cycles that are common today determine the growing demands placed on the development of hardware-integrated applications. In this context, I consider reliability and real-time behavior to be the cornerstones of a successful embedded software solution.”

Unfortunately, there are many practical examples of cover letters that fail to reach their target. What is the goal of a cover letter? And what is the purpose of the cover letter? If you are not clear why you are writing a cover letter and what you want to achieve with it, you will (usually) not have a chance to fill the vacant position. You just don’t know it yet. Why should a company be interested in classifying “cornerstones in embedded software solutions”? Even if the company deals with embedded software solutions – which is not the case in this specific case – what added value does such information offer?

In short: blabla letters miss the point. Just like empty phrases. We humans all have a “quick grasp” and naturally believe that we can “strengthen” the company of choice. Even repetitions of information that can be found in the same wording in the CV do not offer any added value. It is therefore often no surprise that companies do not send cover letters, as many are simply not worth reading. Or as a friend recently put it: “If you have 100 applications per day on your desk, the cover letters will simply not be read anymore”. In a way, that’s understandable, isn’t it?

The credentials

If companies do not require cover letters, there is another important source of information in addition to their CV: a job credential. And for the younger applicants: the report card or university certificate. What was the candidate’s motivation in previous jobs, what were his team skills or his behaviour towards superiors, colleagues and customers – you will find such information in practically every job reference (and if not, as you know, this is also a statement). Those who read job credentials pay attention to linguistic nuances, to universal qualifiers such as “always” and ” ever”, and to elevations such as “very”. A testimonial language has long since developed that provides the specialist with valuable knowledge about the candidate at a glance. All in all, it sounds like a useful source of information, doesn’t it? And what do you think about the following points?

  • Many employees in small, medium and sometimes large companies write their credentials themselves.
  • If a candidate applies from an existing employment relationship, there is usually no current job reference available. However, older references can easily contain outdated information, as people change, take on responsibility or, conversely, lose their motivation.
  • How valuable can a job reference be for a candidate (A or B) who has worked for an employer for 12 years? Obviously, the cooperation was good enough for both sides to last 12 years. Isn’t that already a statement that is more important than the documented behaviour towards others?
  • Why do we rely (at least in parts) on the opinion or evaluation of a third person unknown to us?

The questions lead me to a thesis: credentials will become less and less important in the future. In the USA, there are already companies that no longer issue any certificates at all and that only confirm the period of company affiliation in the case of telephone enquiries about a candidate, but do not confirm any activities, skills or other information.

A small addition to the report card of pupils or students: unfortunately, after the 10th grade at the latest, there are no additional information about the child as a learner and his or hers social and personal development. This means that there are no statements about social behaviour in all report cards. I think that’s a pity, because soft skills are becoming more and more important in professional life. From this point of view it is all the more astonishing that organisations do not wish to receive a cover letter, isn’t it?

The third why

Why does a candidate apply to a company? The question seems harmless and yet it is infinitely important and difficult to answer. The answer can’t be: “because I want to work for a global player or for a renowned and successful company”. Employees in general and personnel managers in particular usually know what image and qualities are attributed to their company. If such an answer comes to mind, the applicant should ask himself why this is important for him. Would he like to work for a global player abroad? Is she looking for a secure job with a renowned and successful company? And now comes the “third” why. Why does the applicant want to work abroad or why is he or she looking for a secure job? This third why or the answer to it belongs in the cover letter. It represents meaningful information for all parties involved. The personnel department can understand motives more easily and the candidate develops a clarity for himself/herself which can still be useful for his/her further application.

Tips for cover letters

If cover letters in companies are not read due to the amount of applications, should one simply do without them? At first glance this may sound logical, but at second glance it is wrong. The correct answer is a short, compact cover letter. Below you will find some tips for a cover letter:

  • Keep it short and sweet. No treatises, no generalisations, no repetitions of information that occurs elsewhere. Why does the candidate really want to work for the company?
  • Use positive wording. “Here is my application for a mandatory internship as part of my retraining as an IT specialist.” is not an optimal phrase.
  • Explain special characteristics. There are always gaps or breaks in CVs, but the reasons for this reveal a lot about the candidate.
  • If a contact person is named, this should be addressed in the salutation. Alone for this reason is worthwhile itself also the attendance of the web page of the enterprise and not only the attendance of job portals, which do not always indicate such information.
  • No graphical “bells and whistles”. The cover letter is about an added value in terms of content and not in terms of appearance.
  • Pay attention to spelling. Of course, nobody is perfect, but mistakes in cover letters or “unusual” formatting do not convey a positive image. Here friends can be helpful if necessary.
  • Often, salary requests are asked in job advertisements. Such and similar questions have to be answered (briefly).
  • What does the candidate want: to introduce himself, be invited, meet to get to know each other, exchange ideas and expectations beyond the job advertisement. The collusive agreement often tells a lot about the candidate and his self-image.

Even if probably only few humans form letters gladly, it is nevertheless recommended to pay attention to the own tendency situation. Who has no desire on the creation of a cover letter, will not produce a particularly successful cover letter. It could therefore make sense, for example, to proceed in smaller steps or to take a break.

Do you have any other tips for the cover letter?

Bottom line

Are cover letters duty or freestyle? Often the cover letter is understood as a duty, but actually it is a duty and a freestyle in one. To the classification: duty and freestyle are terms from the sport, with which exercises or elements of exercises are given (duty) and other exercises and/or parts of exercises by sportsmen ” are “freely” arranged and accomplished (freestyle). An athlete who only performs one part – the duty or the freestyle – will never have a chance of winning.

In fact, cover letters are not popular. This makes it all the more important to stand out from other applicants with a successful, compact cover letter. A good cover letter can significantly improve the candidate’s chances, but in no case worsen them. Therefore: Long live the successful cover letter.



[1] 10 percent more applicants without a cover letter (in German):

Deutsche Bahn does not refrain from issuing cover letters for all invitations to tender, but “only” for training and study places. According to a press release: “We attribute the significant increase in applications for training and study places to the fact that the cover letter has been omitted. In information and job interviews, we receive a lot of positive feedback from the candidates about this step.” Whether the question is a “confirmation bias” is difficult to judge from a distance.

Baur Versand and Sportscheck belong to the Otto Group. Although the Otto Group does not require a cover letter, it instead stimulates two motivation questions. In other words: it only changes the format, it wants to continue to receive the information.​

Michael Schenkel has published additional posts in the t2informatik Blog, including

t2informatik Blog: Customers don't know what they want

Customers don’t know what they want

t2informatik Blog: Requirement analysis, but remote

Requirement analysis, but remote

t2informatik Blog: The customer behind the IP address

The customer behind the IP address

Michael Schenkel
Michael Schenkel

Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH

Michael Schenkel holds a degree in business administration (BA) and is passionate about marketing. He likes to blog about project management, requirements engineering and marketing. And he is happy to meet you for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.