An Expert Told Us You’re Spending Way Too Much Time On Your Cover Letter
We asked an HR professional, “Do you really even read them?”
The cover letter: the most obscure yet crucial aspect of the hiring process—or is it? This letter—traditionally devoid of any emotional nuance—is the number-one cause of job hunters’ tearful calls to moms and ice cream binges. Between trying to divine what HR wants to hear and debating the correct formatting, it’s enough anxiety to take down a coked-out cheerleader. And for what? Do they even get read or are they being used as supplemental toilet paper?
Today, the internet is your cover letter.
The idea of a resume makes sense. In order to predict a candidate’s potential success in a role, it’s reasonable to require understanding of their past experience. The hiring person should understand where exactly they’re coming from—can they handle the role? But a cover letter—well, its purpose is about as clear as Donald Trump’s knowledge of foreign policy. Sure, you’re looking to introduce the human behind the list of mundane achievements. But in 2016, it feels like a formal letter with drab formatting and often-rote language sure is an unusual way for us all to “stand out” and prove ourselves. Every cover letter is chock-full of buzz words, secret phrases and code meanings like “implemented a plan to accelerate production.” You reach a point where it becomes less of a letter, and more of a collection of secret nerd speech for a club no one would ever want to join.
According to The Atlantic, the idea of the cover letter is a newer one. At the end of the 19th century, more than 40 percent of the country worked on farms. In the 40s, more than a third worked in manufacturing. After those simpler times passed, the labor force divided into sectors and subsectors that required certain skills. This means cover letter writing, resume-editing and job hunting are entirely new skills for a fragmented economy.
The importance of having a LinkedIn page wasn’t groundbreaking feedback, but I was surprised at just how important it was.
Yet, as quickly as cover letters have come into our lives, the job force is already redefining expectations. After all, people no longer scour the Wanted ads or stamp a formal letter to express interest in a job. I sat down with Brenna Olexa, my own HR Manager here at Dose.com, to get the complete low-down on what the deal is with cover letters in 2016.
1. In 2016, a cover letter is like the office fax machine.
Every office has one, but it’s paid little attention and no one really even knows how to use it.
Brenna was shocked when I first came to her, asking to pick her brain about cover letters. “Cover letters? I mean…they’re kind of meh, ya know? Don’t you want to talk about something else?”
I was confused. To me, the cover letter was the most mysterious part of the hiring process. I’d been told so many rules: NEVER, EVER more than a page, follow a specific formatting, put addresses in the upper left corner (even though we email them), never include a photo, show you’ve researched the company, yada yada yada.
It’s not that those rules weren’t true, Brenna just feels that, in general, the cover letter isn’t super relevant in 2016. “If the company asks you for one, then yes, supply the letter, follow the rules and do it very well. But in general,” she said, “you’ve got many other ways to prove yourself.”
Of course, it’s important to remember that Brenna hires for a techy, digital media company.
2. If your cover letter is a fax machine, your LinkedIn profile is a Macbook.
When it came to discussing essentials of the hiring process, Brenna was way more interested in discussing LinkedIn. “It’s where recruiters live,” she said. If there’s one professional tool to be overly scrupulous about, make it this one. When asked to rank the resume, cover letter, LinkedIn, portfolio and other online presences in order of importance, Brenna reported that, for her, the resume and LinkedIn were tied for first place.
OK, so the importance of having a LinkedIn page wasn’t groundbreaking feedback, but I was surprised at just how important it was. Make sure the information on your resume and your LinkedIn play well together. Unlike your resume, there’s no page cutoff. You’ve got space to clearly discuss your role and what you learned there. “You definitely want to make sure you put your best foot forward when it comes to your profile,” said Olexa.
She also noted that, for creative professionals, a portfolio could also be just as critical as LinkedIn.
3. Consider your LinkedIn bio the more important “cover letter.”
If LinkedIn is where recruiters live, your bio is the cover letter they’re more likely to read. Sure, for all you know, you’re speaking to a bunch of faceless nobodies—which means you’re free to be honest. It takes the pressure off. Talk about what first got you interested in your field and how your cranky old uncle still doesn’t have a clue as to what you do. Be professional but still creative.
4. Consider what the internet is saying about you.
In the past, cover letters were the only way to get a sense of a candidate’s personality. Now? The internet is your cover letter. Employers can find out a lot about your personality and character for themselves, so keep that in mind when crafting your online “brand.”
I asked Brenna if she looked at candidates’ social media profiles when screening. “Absolutely,” she said. “Everyone’s information is everywhere. It’s simple to do and I can find out more about their character.” Brenna said that she wouldn’t rule out hiring a candidate just for posting photos of a night out with friends. Actual red flags, for her, are signs that the candidate wouldn’t fit well in the company. E.g.: a person who spreads hate or racism or promotes drug use on their public profiles.
I asked Brenna if she thinks candidates should be worried that employers are watching and she advised, “Be yourself and interact—just be conscious of how you present yourself.” Your social media should be a representation of you, but understand that sometimes the real you might not be a good fit for a company (or vice versa).
This is all great, but a lot of companies DO still ask for cover letters. What are we supposed to do with them?! HUH, BRENNA?!
Here are some tricks Brenna gave about actually writing a cover letter:
- Get weird (but stay professional). Use it as a tool to stand out. Think about switching up the formatting. Keep it short and clever.
- Putting your cover letter directly into the body of the email is fine. There’s no need to attach it as a separate file. It’s less clicking and downloading for the reader—plus, it gets you all up in the recruiter’s or hiring manager’s face.
- Address the recipient directly. Dig, if you have to. If you absolutely can’t find out who is doing the hiring, you can address the email, “Dear Hiring Manager” or “HR Department.” Slightly targeted is better than not at all.
- Never magnify something that doesn’t flatter you. If you don’t quite meet the qualifications, don’t say, “I don’t have X years experience, but…” Talk up what you HAVE achieved and how.
- Don’t just say why you’re unique—show it. If you’re a copy writer, get creative and write a narrative or tell an anecdote. If you’re into data, include a graph depicting your major achievements (or like, another data thingy).
- Don’t be formal, but be appropriate. Don’t talk like a robot—robots aren’t approachable and they have no identity. A robot is forgettable.
- Don’t take it so seriously.
At the end of the (work) day, we’re all just a bunch of confused sheep, rolling with the punches and trying to keep up with a rapidly changing economy. As we drop our rakes and plows and crack open our Macbook Pros, it’s not just our careers we must prepare for, because the tricky part isn’t learning how to do your job—it’s having the chops to actually land one in the first place. Part of assimilatng into the the tech age is learning to adapt to a new set of tools and using them to your benefit.