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Have you ever been invited to a friend's birthday party and been told you shouldn't feel pressure to bring a gift? How often do you take this at face value? Do you assume your friend really doesn't want a present? Or do you think, "I'll just play it safe and get her something small to show I've thought of her?"
Job seekers faced a similar dilemma when greeted with the words "cover letter optional" in a job posting. If you've been in this position, you've likely wondered, "Are they just testing me? Do they really want me to submit a cover letter, or are they genuinely fine with not receiving one? And what will it say about me if I don't attach one?"
Read "optional" as "essential"
There is, of course, the chance that an employer has used the line "cover letter optional" because they honestly don't see much value in you attaching this document. But it's also entirely possible that recruiters give you the choice to submit or not to submit because they want to find out how keen you really are on the position.
Since you never know whether you're dealing with the first or second scenario, it's always safest to send a letter—even when doing so is not required and even when the job ad says nothing about it at all. The only time you wouldn't attach this invaluable document is if the posting explicitly requests that you don't.
Set yourself apart from the competition
First and foremost, submitting a cover letter when you don't have to shows that you really, truly want the job. If you're not willing to set aside an hour or two to craft a letter, recruiters might question whether you're really that motivated at all, and that won't reflect well on you.
Choosing to send a letter also offers hiring managers a preview of what's to come if they hire you—it shows that you're the sort of employee who’s prepared to go above and beyond and do more than the bare minimum. If you're being compared to similarly qualified candidates who didn't submit a letter, then this testament to your work ethic should give you an advantage over them. If a cover letter is potentially going to be the one thing that differentiates you from others, why wouldn't you attach one?
Demonstrate your soft skills
A cover letter also presents various other opportunities you don't want to miss out on. It's a chance to demonstrate strong communication skills, which are highly valued in almost every industry, and to say what you can't in your resume. In a letter, you can capture what it is about the role and the company that most appeals to you, showcase your unique personality, and make specific links between your skills and experience and the requirements of the position. Your resume offers a summary of your career history and qualifications; a cover letter acts as a bridge, showing how these details would translate to success in this particular job.
Make your cover letter work extra hard
If hiring managers include the line "cover letter optional" in a job posting, it might be because they don't want to be inundated with a heap of extra reading that doesn't add value. So, if you're going to give them something they haven't requested, make sure it's worth their time to engage with it. Compile a document that's customized, original, and attention-grabbing, and avoid making all the common cover letter mistakes. Never start with "To Whom It May Concern" (personalize the greeting with the hiring manager's name instead), stay away from clichés and tired buzzwords, and don't just repeat what's in your resume.
It's also best to keep the emphasis on the company's needs and how you can add value, rather than on what the job would bring to your life. And, of course, you should make sure your letter is free of any errors and is as concise as possible—the leaner, the better, especially if it's only optional.
A final note
If you're not sure where to start, it's a good idea to use one of the many cover letter templates available online to assist you. Cover letter templates are especially helpful in that they typically offer step-by-step guidance and even suggest job-specific keywords to include to beat applicant tracking systems that screen for certain phrases.
Since 2005, LiveCareer has been helping job seekers create resumes and cover letters via its free resume builder and cover letter builder tools. Also available are collections of free, professionally written resume templates and resume samples, all of which are organized by industry and job title.
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