Long Live the Cover Letter. Or not.
A quick Google search reveals dozens of listings about how the cover letter is dead in hiring – alongside seemingly-anachronistic articles offering cover letter advice for job seekers. So often, business writers refer to something as “dead” to get a rise out of readers: email is dead. Cold calling is dead. Networking is dead – while all the time those things keep on chugging. Not so with cover letters.
Cover letters are, for the most part, a dinosaur in the job application process. They’re a vestigial remnant of a more formal, more hidebound working culture than the one we find ourselves in today. Hiring managers rarely read them. Recruiters rarely read them. Yet candidates still dutifully attach cover letters to job applications – when they can – out of a desire to check all the boxes, to cross the T’s and dot the I’s and come across as a diligent, thorough employee. It breaks our hearts. Okay, that might be too strong. But it’s disappointing to see because the time spent working on a cover letter is almost always better spent buffing up your resume.
Why are cover letters dead? Hiring managers at companies tend to receive a ton of applications, so many that it becomes prohibitively time consuming to read the cover letters which, let’s be honest, typically derive from form letters found through Google searches. The same goes for agency recruiters. Many Applicant Tracking Systems – which many large corporations use to filter out job applicants sight unseen – don’t even have a section that allows an applicant to input a cover letter. A famous eye-tracking study in The Ladders showed that the average recruiter spends 6 seconds reviewing each resume before moving on to the next one. The study didn’t even bother to include data about how much time they spend reading cover letters.
To us, that says it all.
For an entry-level or junior role especially, a classy cover letter might show your soft skills, your ability to communicate, in a way that sets you apart and glosses over your lack of experience. Or that’s the idea. For a senior-level role with big impact, a cover letter is a chance to introduce your management style and personality. But most cover letters are going to get ignored by hiring managers, so typically they’re not worth the pixels on which they’re displayed.
However, as the trend away from cover letters takes hold, the pendulum seems to be swinging completely to the other side of the spectrum: more and more we’re seeing resumes come in with absolutely no note or email message attached.
Here’s the basic message we want to convey: the formal cover letter might be dead, but that doesn’t mean a blank email to a recruiter or hiring manager is going to be effective. So let us propose a replacement for the cover letter:
The Elevator Pitch.
Even though you don’t need a formal three paragraph letter explaining your experience and value, you do need some kind of human touch when you market yourself for a role. A cover letter might not get read, and the recruiter might go straight for the resume. But if you send just a resume with no note at all, your resume won’t even get a read.
Your application email needs to have an elevator pitch that entices the recruiter or hiring manager to read your resume. Who are you? What do you do? What excites you about this opportunity? It shouldn’t be as informal as an email to a friend or family member. It still needs to be professional. But concision is key. Point to one or two major accomplishments on your resume, offer a brief note on what you think you’d offer the organization, thank them for their consideration, and sign off.
In today’s business world, for a sole contributor role or above, that’s really all you need. But the elevator pitch isn’t necessarily easier to write than a cover letter. As Mark Twain said (apocryphally), “I wrote you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Figuring out how to distill your experience and potential into a one-paragraph elevator pitch is tricky. It’s even harder to make it personable and catchy. Think about your initial email as a call to action designed to entice the reader into checking out your resume. What are the three most impactful things you’ve done in your career? What do you offer that elevates teams rather than just “filling a role”? What’s motivated you to apply for this job out of the thousands you might see posted every day?
Answer these questions, and you’re halfway there.
Some companies are still asking for cover letters, even if they aren’t necessarily reading them, so consider the practice moribund if not completely dead. But we think an elevator pitch is the best approach.