Cover letters: outdated?

For many decades, the job application process was formulaic to the point of being violently boring. Construct resume. Attach references. Draft cover letter. Submit package via mail or in person.

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The internet has of course changed the job search considerably through the years. For job hunters, online applications can take mere minutes to complete, physical paperwork has gone the way of the dinosaur, and “yes/no” clicks have replaced introductory phone interviews.

For employers, things are also very different. For starters, anyone with web access can learn about job openings and apply. That means that a position – say, an entry-level IT position – that would have received a few dozen responses in years past may now result in thousands of interested job hunters filling out online applications.

If you’re in human resources or internal recruiting, that means a large percentage of your time is shuffling through the (some unqualified, some unprepared, some out-of-area) masses to find those few diamonds in the rough that may one day make superstar employees.

In light of all this new way of doing businesses, cover letters have become less common. Companies just don’t require them as often as they used to. So of course the question is: should I include a cover letter?

Answer: Always include a cover letter if the employer requests one. Otherwise, include a cover letter only if you are certain it adds value to your application.

If you aren’t sure how to decide whether your cover letter is valuable, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself. Work through this list and you’ll develop a good idea of what your cover letter should do (and not do!) and whether you feel comfortable drafting one that fits into these guidelines.

Am I just repeating the information in my resume?

Nobody wants to read your resume twice, and if it looks like you’re repeating yourself you’ve just increased your odds of heading for the discard pile. It’s okay to identify your school or GPA again, but your work history, relevant coursework, and contact information belong on your resume only. Your cover letter should:

  • Tell an interesting story about yourself. Get a reader’s attention by revealing details about your interests and work ethic through an experience.
  • Explain why you’re the ideal candidate for the job. If you’re one in a dozen, or a hundred, or a thousand applicants, what makes you the one? Don’t make somebody figure that out for themselves. Explain it!

Does this look like everyone else’s cover letters?

If the answer is yes, discard and start from scratch. That same formulaic model isn’t going to help you land a job. That doesn’t mean your cover letter should look silly, but you’ve got to find a way to show that you’re an actual human being and not just a PDF.

Does this cover letter say “I really, really want this job?”

If not, you’re missing the point. This is your chance to sell yourself not just as qualified, but as interested and as a good fit for the company. In the end, candidates who just throw applications at every available position aren’t going to do very well, because organizations will quickly weed them out in favor of people who want this specific position.

If you can write a cover letter that hits all these high notes, absolutely submit it. If not, you may just be better off letting your resume stand on its own.

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