Are cover letters still important?
Are cover letters even really useful anymore? Some recruiters believe this to be the case. And it’s true that there are recruiters that skip reading the traditional cover letter and dive directly to the resume. Back in a time when everything was written on paper and mailed in, a cover letter served as a letter of introduction. Email shortcuts the whole process.
If you’re applying through an online job portal, there’s merit to this. A company that is using an online job portal is trying to automate their recruiting process. They could very well be skipping the cover letter. But job portals aren’t where you’re going to find the best jobs. The best jobs come through your network. If you’re following up on a job lead within your own network, you need a letter of introduction when you contact the recruiter directly.
That is where a cover letter still shines, but the cover letter needs to match the needs of today as well.
The Three Paragraph Cover Letter is (Mostly) Dead. Long Live the Cover Letter!
The E-Note Cover Letter
The average attention span of the modern internet user is around 8 seconds. Back in the 1950s and 60s when cover letters first became strong recruiting tools, it was 60 seconds. We all could read a one-page cover letter in 60 seconds, but today’s minds are so changed by the internet that recruiters aren’t taking the time to read long thoughtful letters, with the possible exception of older recruiters with a fondness for tradition.
In fact, some recruiters aren’t even using the term “cover letter” anymore. They’re now being called E-notes, power notes, or value proposition letters. They are basically very short sales letters. Here are some of their features:
Fits on a smart phone screen
Perhaps you’re still one of the few holdouts who doesn’t have a smartphone, but one sure way to annoy a smartphone user is to force them to scroll down on a message. This means that your cover letter needs to fit in a very small space not just to fit attention spans but also smartphone sizes. Aim for less than 150 words for the entire message. The use of white space is also encouraged to make parts of your message stand out.
Closely resembles a piece of copywriting
Catching an 8 second attention span is no mean feat. A low word count is not enough. A bit of copywriting skill needs to be thrown in there as well. CareerRealism.com has an excellent power note formula that reads much like a traditional sales letter:
- Start with a question or engaging statement
- Target the biggest need they have
- State how you’re the solution
- Prove it! Give them three bullets that prove you’re the solution
- Don’t forget the money. Employers want to know how you made it, saved it, or contributed to it
- How does this fit into your brand?
- Call-to-action close
- Edit – Remember…150 words or fewer
Still Want to Go Traditional?
Traditional recruiters and employees may cringe at the thought of hopping onto the latest recruiting trend like that. After all, our grandparents wrote traditional cover letters. They’re supposed to show, among other things, that you know a bit about the company, can be polite, and can write a proper letter (admittedly a dying art).
There’s also no way for you to know what type of cover letter your recruiter is going to prefer. But we cannot argue with the trend that shorter messages do get more responses, and that your carefully crafted letter is likely going to get just a quick glance.
What traditional hiring managers look for in cover letters
Facility with Business Letter Writing
Form cover letters are right out. Recruiters see form cover letters all the time, and it shows a lack of originality. The same goes with duplicating large parts of the job proposal in the cover letter. You can use the occasional phrase, such as the job title, but never copy and paste.
Another major error is typos. If you’ve ever seen a complaint on social media about proper grammar and spelling, and arguments getting dismissed outright because of it, it’s only going to get worse as Millennials start attaining higher positions. Proofread your work well.
Also, be concise, polite, and positive. These are not difficult things, but all too often people forget to do it. If you go on and on about your job experience, complain about your previous job, or show apathy or desperation in your letter, you’ll turn the recruiter off.
Benefits For the Hiring Company
Recruiters want to know how you can help their business. They are not interested in how much you can burnish your own reputation unless the self-promotion can indirectly help them (e.g. gaining a Master’s degree.)
Formal openings like “Dear sir or madam” aren’t the way to go anymore. You should make efforts to find out the recruiter’s name, and if you’re getting the job through a referral, your reference should be able to tell you that. Some people are even suggesting addressing the recruiter by their first name. You should also make sure that your reference and the recruiter actually remember each other. A recruiter who sees a reference name they don’t recognize is going to be confused and probably toss the letter.
It is estimated that by 2020 50% of the full-time workforce are going to be freelancers rather than traditional employees. Many freelancers choose to telecommute from home rather than go into a traditional office. The recruiting methods for freelancers is different than employees, and one of those differences is that recruiters want to see samples, portfolios, and other forms of proof that you know how to do your job. While you may not have to attach samples to an employee application, recruiters are definitely interested in reading about concrete projects you did that gave your current employer more value.
Because of the drop in attention span, the rise of resume-scanning software, and the shorter attention span of hiring professionals, the cover letter is evolving into more of a sales letter. While there are professionals who still thrive in with the traditional use of cover letters, more are clamoring for the e-note style of letter because they are formatted with an eye toward mobile readability. Having a cover letter with your resume can be extremely beneficial.