Cover Letters in China: A Difference in the Professional Job Market

Cover Letters in China - What's Normal?

Cover Letters! A majority of the world’s largest job markets love them (see graph below). But what about China? 

Let’s clear up some common questions that our HR & recruiting team gets from all sides of the hiring process in China!

Cover Letter Lengths Around the World
Any big countries missing here?

Graph Source: Resume.io

Are Cover Letters Used in China's Job Market?

Cover Letters are *not requested or used* for the vast majority of positions in China.

In short, not really

I first took this question to our own China recruiting team – who always make sure to ask twice about Cover Letter requirements. 

Our Recruiting manager Ms Chen (who has probably fielded over 50,000 Resumes for us) is decided: “The cover letter is not the usual in China, people don’t use it when applying for a Chinese position,” referring to the application flow of Chinese companies, “we more often see that they’ll write a short sentence, based around their motivations.”

Ms Zhu, with over 10 years of experience in HR and hiring out of Shanghai, adds: “Instead of a letter, it’s a very simple *why I think I’m suitable for this position* in a couple of sentences.”   

So what about the Chinese candidates who do send a cover letter?

“Those that send a cover letter are usually sending it in English. For the most part, they don’t even have a Chinese version because it is so uncommon,” adds Recruiting Pro Ms Chen, “they’ve never even been asked to write one in Chinese.”

The First Cover Letter in Shanghai
The first known Cover Letter in Shanghai
belonged to Canadian merchant Thomas Bailey (1/2)

What Percentage of Job Candidates in China Submit Cover Letters?

After recruiting for hundreds of Chinese companies and receiving tens of thousands of applications since 2014, our recruiting team estimates only 1-2% of Chinese candidates submit a Cover Letter! And we’ve almost never seen a Chinese one.

When it comes to International companies operating in China, there is a much bigger tendency to require Cover Letters in China as per a global standard. When a cover letter is required, it’s important for international companies to remember that most Chinese candidates (and maybe up to 99% of them!) do not have a cover letter prepared already and have not needed one for all or most of their other job applications. 

The One Job Candidate in China to Rule Them All
"What is this thing... you call... The Cover Letter?!"

What is Common in China Instead of a Cover Letter?

  1. A concise statement at the top of the CV: This is a humble and straightforward 1-3 sentences on why the candidate thinks they would be a great fit for the job. It is in the same location as an ‘Objective Statement’ on a Western CV.

  2. If possible via email or form, a short (2-3 sentence) statement in the email body: This is a statement of application intent and a polite request for consideration.

  3. Keywords: adding the right keywords to a CV/application on the major Chinese jobs platforms is an important step to stand out.

  4. A Bigger focus on Certificates and Degrees: In China’s highly competitive job market, educational and professional milestones mean a lot in the journey to get ahead. This area of the CV garners more focus and space than it would in many international Resumes.

  5. Special interests section more developed: Much like in the rest of the world, this section gets stuck at the bottom of most Chinese CVs. It is, however, given more space to breathe and is valued by many Chinese companies looking for the right culture fit with applicants.
The Chinese CV
The Chinese CV - loaded with everything you need!

What do Chinese Companies do Regarding Cover Letter Requirements?

Chinese companies, the vast majority of the time, don’t mention Cover Letter at all on the Job Description.

It is completely optional, and not expected. Furthermore, there are no penalties for not submitting one, it simply isn’t really a thing across China! Unless specifically mentioned in the JD, a cover letter can be ignored in China. Instead of a cover letter, Chinese Companies move right to these things when evaluating candidates:

  • Keyword & Search Optimizations: Over half of hires in the domestic Chinese market are done on China’s job and networking platforms. Companies can refine their search in a massive way by starting there.

  • The Certifications and Degrees category becomes more important: Ongoing education is huge in China – candidates can continue to put themselves in more elite categories with verified accomplishments.

  • More pre-interview evaluations: Candidates hoping to work at tech giants like Alibaba take both technical and comprehensive tests.

Should My Company Still Require a Cover Letter When Posting Jobs in China?

We suggest keeping the cover letter optional in China. Here’s why:

  1. Most great candidates in China don’t already have a cover letter prepared. Requiring a cover letter is an extra daunting step that we see high-potential candidates bail on more often than not.

  2. Other Companies Don’t Require it. The biggest, newest, most innovative companies in China don’t require it. They are already enough to compete within the job market. This is another (albeit minor) side hurdle for candidates to work with other companies instead of yours.

  3. Having a mandatory cover letter, especially in English, discourages A LOT  of great candidates from applying for a position. Unless they are previously familiar and very positive on your firm, a majority of top-tier talents in China will simply skip over a job application that requires an English cover letter. They can apply to dozens of similar jobs at Chinese private and public companies without having to bother.

  4. Keeping it optional on the Job Description gives candidates paying attention an easy way to stand out. When that 1-2% of candidates DO include a cover letter in China, it’s always great to see.

  5. Great candidates are ready to send you the Chinese comparable – a very purposeful and thought-out target statement and courteous email introduction. That’s not bad!

  6. China values modesty. Let’s face it – sometimes cover letters don’t feel the most genuine, and it’s not something a lot of China’s culturally conscious professionals want to lead their application with.
Great Wall Resumes
Just A Résumé? That'll do in China!

Should I Have a Cover Letter When Applying to Jobs in China?

And now for those of you job seekers out there reading this! While it’s not the most common practice in China, adding a Cover Letter to your job application certainly isn’t going to hurt.

It can actually be a great cheat code to stand out in a pile of CVs optimized around certificates and keywords! (See item 4 on this list for employers right above)

Candidates who particularly benefit in the China job market:

  • Chinese candidates applying to international companies: If you are applying for an international company position, even in China, it could be beneficial to include a cover letter. Many international hiring managers see cover letters as a bonus to any application.
  • Chinese candidates applying for a position that is primarily in another language: If you are a Chinese candidate applying to work in another language – that’s great! Craft a thoughtful cover letter showing your competency in and confidence with with the language.
  • International candidates applying to any position in China: This is a great chance to explain your interest in the company culture, history, and anything that draws you to or relates you to the company. Show off your written Chinese here if possible! Remember, if it is a Chinese company you are probably one of only 1-2% of candidates sending a cover letter, completely worth a shot!
The (Actual) First Cover Letter in China
The Bailey family claim-to-cover-letter-fame was later dismantled,
after ‘丁儿’ (dīng ér) style cover letters dating back to the Northern Song dynasty surfaced. (2/2)

Cover Letters in China: A Wrap Up!

Sooooo, Cover Letters aren’t really used in China. Only about 1-2% of Chinese applicants we’ve received since 2014 have included one.

Companies: Making a cover letter optional in China opens up your talent options in a significant way. Requiring one may cut off a majority of your starting applicant pool.

Candidates: In our book, it never hurts to add a cover letter. In many China situations, where only 1-2% of candidates include a cover letter, it helps the applicant stand out in a significant way.

 

Be sure to check out our companion piece: 11 Unique Items on Resumes in China.

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