Cover letters still matter in this day and age for three reasons: they provide another quick layer to weed out candidates, they paint the picture for the screener on why the candidate is applying, and they help connect the work they’ve done to the work they would like to do for the new company in a (hopefully) concrete and engaging visual manner.
First, screeners want quick ways to narrow down their applicant pools and one way they can do that is by requiring a cover letter be submitted with the resume. If candidates ignore this or just send a canned cover letter that works for any application, it turns the screener off and the applicant can get rejected immediately for not following instructions. Because really, who wants a new employee that can’t follow instructions anyway?
Second, the applicant may think their skill set is a great match for a new employer, but they don’t have the traditional skills the screener/hiring manager is looking for. Hence the cover letter is the perfect way to use the keywords needed to paint the picture of why the applicant is a great fit for the employer’s opening. Screeners are crazy busy people that are inundated with information, help make your application stand out by making their job easier by connecting the dots of your skills and their needs.
Finally, most employers are proud of the history and culture of their organization and they want to find the best fit to uphold these things. If an applicant has a personal connection to the history, culture, mission, vision, product, or service, sharing this in a cover letter can make a so-so resume or application more compelling to a screener/hiring manager and encourage them to take a closer look at the applicant.
As a recovering HR executive turned HR consultant and interim HR leader for companies of all sizes, these are the reasons I pause and take a closer look at an applicant before hitting delete.