Is The Cover Letter Dead?

Image: Lifehacker

It's the bane of many job hunters' existence: the cover letter. Traditionally, this is attached to a resume and sent out to potential employers. This short letter is meant to give you a platform to tell your potential employer why you're perfect for the job on offer. It's also an institution that was introduced over 50 years ago. In an age where employers barely have time to read a resume, should we just kill off cover letters for good? Let's find out.

According to The Altantic, cover letters originated in the second half of the 20th century as the US was moving away from manufacturing and towards a services-based economy. It was used to gauge a job applicant's interpersonal skills. Sounds good in theory but this was also a time before the internet. It was a time before your recruiter can stalk you exhaustively based on your online presence; there is a reason why professional networking site LinkedIn has become an indispensable tool for jobseekers and employers.

It's also important to examine the state of cover letters now. How many times have you written one cover letter and rejigged it slightly for different jobs? These letters are often laden with generic statements about your skills and abilities that you can just imagine your potential employer rolling their eyes as they're reading it. They've probably seen the sentence "I'm a fast learner and a go-getter" umpteen times.

Cover letters have become so formulaic that they've become obsolete. Here's what veteran recruiter Chadd Balbi had to say about cover letters based on his experience with job hunters and employers:

"We live in a social media world where 140 characters is the max attention our brain can offer. Consequently, hiring managers would like to decide if you are a fit as quickly as possible. A study by The Ladders revealed that on average recruiters review resumes for about 6.25 seconds before determining if you are a fit.   A cover letter unfortunately does not fit into this equation. While I am sure the candidate spent a good amount of time preparing what they would like to say, cover letters get skimmed over with little to no interest."

So if hiring managers don't want read it and jobseekers don't want to write it, then why do we still insist on keeping cover letters?

There are still employers out there who ask to receiving cover letters when they request resumes from job applicants. It's probably out of habit; we've been asking for cover letters for so long, why stop now?

But there are companies that are leading the way in terms of killing off the cover letter. A former principal recruiter for Google said cover letters are not required in the company's job application process.

Cover letters could deter job seekers from applying for a job as well.

"Requiring a cover letter increases the time to apply, which makes it more likely top candidates will abandon your online hiring process before completion," according to Chris McDonald, managing director for online job search engine Indeed. "Our own research found that companies with 45 or more screener questions have a whopping 88.7% of their potential applicants abandon the process, and another study found 30% of candidates won’t spend longer than 15 minutes on an application."

Your resume itself should be able to convey what you can bring to a job on offer. While there is an argument that a cover letter gives applicants an opportunity to show off their personalities and make a connection with recruiters, as we've already discussed, cover letters are often insipid and recruiters have a tendency to just ignore them all together.

If the cover letter isn't dead yet, it’s death is long overdue.

What are your thoughts on cover letter? Do you think they're still valuable in the job application process? Let us know in the comments.


Comments

    I think if applying directly to the company, the cover letter is essential. Having run a recruitment process myself, the lack of a cover letter is off-putting as it signals to me that the person potentially has just applied for the sake of it. A (good) cover letter is the opportunity to show that the applicant knows about the company and can justify why they are suitable.

      I agree. It also shows whether or not the applicant has a good grasp of language. I was recruiting for an office coordinator, which is a role that requires excellent communication skills. I shudder to remember how many cover letters were riddled with spelling/grammar errors.

      how often do you receive a "good" cover letter though? The article points out the truth that is cover letters today. most are generic or slightly tweaked for a different job.

    The cover letter is possibly useful to fine tune one's capability and experience for the role sought. It also stops the resume extending over five pages or more. One can extract the eyes with the cover letter and be more discursive (but not prolix) about 'fit to role' background. In my view the cover letter is not just a flag waver, its 'how can I work for you' particularly if you are crossing industries.
    On the other hand, the challenge of the opening sentence: how to be interesting, is always there...

    The cover letter allows you to demonstrate how your skills and experience are directly relevant to the position, especially if you're seeking a career change.

    I don't think Google's processes are exemplary. I remember about 10 years being phone-interviewed by one of their product managers. While he was keen to discern my familiarity about a lot of faddish buzz-phrases, it quickly became clear that I was more familiar with the product he managed then he was. It did at least give me an opportunity to inform him of some well-known bugs that he was ignorant of (and they got fixed soon after). Google also goes a bit meta with a lot of self back-slapping about the way they do interviews.

    Last edited 31/10/16 2:50 pm

    I wouldn't mind cover letters (I write mine from scratch because: paranoia I leave a telltale sign it's a template) if employers did a better job with their listings.

    Spelling and grammatical errors, repeating essentially the same requirements or experiences to be addressed in the application, unnecessary qualifications preferred and basically the eerie feeling this listing is more copy and paste than any applicants' submission which contributes to the vagueness.

    And what galls me the most is the people that write the shitty listing are usually the first stage of screening.

      If I see a shitty listing I won't apply, because it tells me some HR halfwit who has no idea what I do is going to be judging my cv which is jargon heavy to be able to pack my skills into just a few pages. I'll find a more direct route if I'm actually interested in the job by working out who the supervisor is and if I have any connections and ensure they know I'm applying. Also having been forced to use that process when hiring people I've had to go back to HR and offer a list of good applicants I know have applied and ask them why they have excluded these people who I want to interview. If you don't understand a technical job keep your amateur psych nose out of the decisions, If I need a damn flux capacitor tuner I don't give a shit if he smells and picks his nose, I need the damn skills and I'll manage the foul beast just fine.
      A cover letter is a waste of time, I need to know skills and experience for a technical role.

    One approach I've seen & used myself is to merge the cover letter with the CV, so that the top half of the 1st page is the cover letter, and the rest of the document is the CV. So the recruiter only has to open and look at a single document.

    The trick is to keep the cover letter part really short to draw the recruiter to specific parts of the CV - which can be highlighted, if necessary. Use the 'don't make me think' principle to guide the recruiter & make it very easy form them to find & read the right bits.

Join the discussion!