Searching for a new job is a time-consuming endeavor. By some estimates, the typical worker takes about six weeks to apply for, interview and finally land a new job offer. And across any industry and level of work, there's one step to the process that's bound to slow down even the most qualified and enthusiastic candidate: the cover letter.
But findings from one new report offer some motivation to draft a good elevator pitch, even in a time when cover letters are becoming increasingly optional.
According to a survey of 200 hiring managers from ResumeLab, a resume advice site, 83% of HR professionals agreed with the statement "a great cover letter can make me decide to interview a candidate, even if I don't think their resume is good enough."
That means, out of every 10 resumes where the applicant might not have the right work history, set of skills or management experience, eight job seekers are likely to advance, as long as they can make up for it in their cover letters.
A majority of hiring managers said cover letters were crucial to their hiring decisions, and 77% give preference to candidates who submit one, even if they're deemed optional on the application form. A similar share always expect the document, even if they're not required in order to apply.
While cover letters can give candidates a leg up on the competition, they come with a major caveat.
Companies are increasingly relying on applicant tracking systems, often shortened to ATS, and artificial intelligence software to review resumes. These algorithms scan resumes for specific words and phrases around work history, responsibilities, skills and accomplishments to identify candidates who match well with the job description.
Ian Siegel, CEO of jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, estimates more than 70% of resumes are now reviewed by robots before they reach a human reader.
That means resumes, and how they're written, matter first and foremost.
To be sure, the ResumeLab survey was designed to measure the impact of a cover letter only after a resume passed an ATS scan and made it to a human reviewer, explains Maciej Duszynski, career expert and researcher behind the study.
Siegel offers three recommendations for a resume to make it past the bots:
1. "Use standard file types — no more trying to stand out by putting your resume into Photoshop," he tells CNBC Make It. Instead, "Use Microsoft Word or Google Docs to give something the parser can parse.
2. "Check your grammar and spelling. It seems obvious, yet a surprising number of job seekers don't do it.
3. "Clearly list your skills and make it easy for the parser to understand your years of experience," Siegel says.
If possible, Siegel says to demonstrate mastery of each skill by listing your years of experience learning or using each one in your work history.
While workers should be detailed about their qualifications on a resume, they need to be quick — and creative — when it comes to their cover letter. Siegel estimates that hiring managers spend an average of 20 seconds reviewing a given cover letter.
The majority of hiring managers from the ResumeLab survey said the most important thing they're looking for in a cover letter is the applicant's reason for wanting to join the company.
Siegel agrees this is one of just three things job seekers should include in their cover letter.
"The golden rule of applying to a job is showing specific interest," he says. "A lot of people write cover letters to describe their background and explain why they're a fit for the role. But I would start my cover letter with the sentence, 'I'm so excited to apply to this job because ... ' and fill in the blank about the business."
Beyond that, Siegel boils down the most important things to include in a cover letter to three points.
"Show enthusiasm, show you've done research, and show you want to come in there and make a contribution," he says.
According to the ResumeLab survey, hiring managers also find cover letters helpful in understanding anything surprising about the candidate's work history, such as a reason for changing careers or explaining an employment gap.
While a good job candidate can increase their odds of cutting through the noise by perfecting their resume and cover letter, it's still not the most surefire way to land an interview.
"The cover letter may be one way you can break out, but a far better way to receive consideration if you're an imperfect candidate is via reference," Siegel says. "Roughly 19% of the people who are getting hired are doing it because they had a friend recommend them."
LinkedIn data supports the referral method. According to the networking site, 70% of professionals get hired at companies where they have a personal connection. Yet 51% of millennials feel uncomfortable about reaching out to their connections for a referral, and 40% say they avoid this step altogether during their job search.