Are Cover Letters Still Relevant?

A cover letter must be great.  It’s not a box that gets checked, it’s an opportunity to increase your potential for employment.  That means no form letters, no copying and pasting, and nothing so long that it won’t be read.  Write a new cover letter every time, and keep it to half a page or so.  You must succinctly frame your application, address any concerns, and grab the reader’s interest.  Make the reader want to meet you!

We had an interesting chat in the office the other day on the subject of cover letters.  A reasonably local micro-brewery had a job posting for a marketing and technology position, and as a quasi-joke I passed it over to a colleague who has an affinity for marketing, technology, and micro-brews.  Upon reading the post he remarked that he was well-qualified, and then tongue-in-cheek added “except for lacking ten years of experience with the brewery business and an MBA”.

“No problem,” I said, “just write a terrific cover letter that explains why you don’t need an MBA because you have an equivalent amount of life experience!”

Cue the discussion about cover letters.

The main topic covered in this brief-but-intense conversation between four of us was: Do cover letters still have a place in today’s job hunting process?  As a follow-on, if they are indeed determined to be relevant, then what is their importance relative to everything else, and what form should they take?

At the risk of sounding like some sort of naïve office dinosaur, I passionately argued that cover letters are indeed relevant, and actually rather important.  On the spot, I based this opinion on three concepts:

  1. The cover letter is the “opening act”, and frames how the rest of your application is viewed
  2. The cover letter is your primary means of preemptively addressing any negatives
  3. From a “conversions” standpoint, an effective cover letter increases the likelihood that the reader will actually look at your résumé in detail and/or will want to meet you

Going through the insanely competitive co-op program at UW, I quickly learned the importance of separating myself from the pack.  With hundreds or thousands of students with roughly comparable academic qualifications all vying for a finite number of posts, getting noticed required some effort.  By the time we got to our senior years, I observed that the most sought-after jobs were always going to the same pool of students (unlike in “real life”, you could see the full list of people who had been scheduled for an interview for each position, and it was a fairly small group).  The cover letter became the “ponta da lança” (literally, “the point of the lance”…I have taken this term from soccer tactics) of my application package.

#1. The Cover Letter is your “opening act”

In whatever form it takes (e.g., actual letter attached to your application, email to the hiring manager, etc.) the cover letter sets the stage for your entire application.  It lets you start to tell a story, to lead the reader on a journey as they get to know you and assess whether or not they want to meet you.  Done correctly, the cover letter increases your odds of actually getting the opportunity to tell the rest of your story.  While résumés don’t need to be nearly as bland and rigidly-formatted as most people think, they must still adhere somewhat to a formula; cover letters, on the other hand, give you a great opportunity to show a glimpse of personality (even if it’s just your writing style).  The cover letter and the résumé are intricately linked, two sides of the same coin, and each complements the other and influences how the other is read and interpreted.  Keep that in mind when you’re writing each, and make sure they are two parts of a cohesive whole, and not disparate pieces that don’t fit together.

Done correctly, the cover letter increases your odds of actually getting the opportunity to tell the rest of your story.  The cover letter and the résumé are intricately linked, two sides of the same coin, and each complements the other and influences how the other is read and interpreted.

#2. The Cover Letter is your best opportunity to address a perceived weakness

Most job posts are a wish list of characteristics and qualifications for the “ideal candidate”.  In reality, it’s quite rare to find someone who matches up 100% with what’s posted – and in that situation you start to worry that the candidate wouldn’t be satisfied with the job due to a poor growth path.  What does this mean?  Well, for starters it means that you shouldn’t be put off from applying because you’re missing a couple of the things listed in the posting.  However, it remains on you to convince the reader that you would be able to do the job and it remains on you to address their concerns.  Do you have a demonstrable history of learning new things quickly?  How about transferable skills?  Have you used the same tools before, albeit in a different job function?  Are you excited about the growth path?  The cover letter is where you can touch on these.

Of course, be reasonable/realistic – if there are strict regulatory requirements or truly massive gaps in qualification and experience, then it’s probably not the right position at this point in time.

Back when I was in third-year, there was an interesting job post from a mobile platform vendor in Toronto.  It was a business-focused role that was posted for fourth-year “Math and Business” students, and listed an assortment of associated requirements.  I was a third-year Computer Engineering student.  I had the technical stuff down, but was lacking the “business” experience, formal or academic.  However, for several years I’d been an avid reader of the now-defunct Business 2.0, and the still-going Fortune magazines.  I wrote a cover letter that addressed the gaps head-on by highlighting my active interest in real-world business subjects and explaining how I had a proven history in learning new material and adapting to new environments.

Beyond qualification holes, the cover letter also lets you address things like gaps in your work history or frequent job changes, both of which are red flags for prospective companies.

#3. The Cover Letter is a powerful conversion tool

What is the actual point of a cover letter?  One way of looking at it is from the standpoint of conversions.  In marketing, a “conversion” is a goal achievement, and can take many forms: ad clicks, whitepaper downloads, website visits, video views, etc.  In your application, a conversion might be “get the reader to look at my résumé”, or “get the reader to consider me seriously”, or “get the reader’s interest and really stand out from the crowd”.  I’ve often thought of it like this: the cover letter gets them to look at your résumé, your résumé gets them to want to interview you, the interview gets you the job.

Continuing from the example above, my cover letter in that instance closed by saying something very close to, “You’re going to interview six candidates; why not choose five from Math&Business and round out the group by taking a shot on me?” [the actual cover letter is stored on a hard-drive that is being uncooperative at the moment, but I’ll post the excerpts if I can recover it]

I got an interview, and the hiring manager started by saying, “After reading your cover letter, I just had to meet you.”

I got an interview, and the hiring manager started by saying, “After reading your cover letter, I just had to meet you.”  We had a wonderful chat, and in the end I was ranked number two out of their candidate pool.  “On paper”, I wasn’t even qualified to apply.

Closing Caveats

OK, so I’m pretty big on cover letters…but I’m big on great cover letters as a part of a truly outstanding, cohesive, and comprehensive application portfolio.  What does that mean?

  • A cover letter must be great.  It’s not a box that gets checked, it’s an opportunity to increase your potential for employment.  That means no form letters, no copying and pasting, and nothing so long that it won’t be read.  Write a new cover letter every time, and keep it to half a page or so.  You must succinctly frame your application, address any concerns, and grab the reader’s interest.  None of this, “I don’t have time” nonsense.
  • The cover letter nowadays might be a cover email – that’s fine, it serves the same purposes.
  • A great cover letter is only part of the picture: You still need to consciously define and effectively control your brand, so that when a potential employer does a Google search or looks around on LinkedIn, they like what they see.  A friend of mine purchased Google AdWords around his name, so when potential employers search for him, they get a quasi-personalized message.  How cool is that for someone in marketing?!?
  • A great cover letter is only part of the picture: You need a terrific résumé.  You need to be a fantastic interview (OK, that part comes after the cover letter part).  You need an exemplary portfolio of “stuff” to show the employer…and so on.
  • All the pieces must fit together cohesively, rather than shove together in some discombobulated mess.

To anyone thinking “Goodness me, that sounds like a lot”, look at it from the employer’s perspective: If someone doesn’t put effort into an application, what kind of effort will they put into the job?

You might have noticed that I’m, shall we say, passionate about career management, job applications and so on.  As part of that passion, I’m very interested in other perspectives.  Do you agree?  Do you disagree?  Do you have your own experiences to share?  I welcome your comments and input!

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Posted in Careers, Everything
2 comments on “Are Cover Letters Still Relevant?
  1. […] advice is for you to write a good cover letter and address the issue straight-up. And this advice applies well beyond a failed course: use the […]

  2. […] because it’s not very hard to avoid these mistakes: it doesn’t take much time to write a cover letter that will grab the reviewer’s attention, it’s not hard to create a résumé that will stand out, and wowing the interviewer takes […]

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