Cover letters are so 20th century, right?
You can just imagine Peggy Olson from Mad Men sitting down at her baby blue Royal typewriter to crank out a cover letter for a job at a rival agency.
What could be more vintage, more obsolete when compared to the booming tech industry here in the 21st century?
Well, the truth is a little more complicated.
And here’s why: Even though technology has certainly changed in the last 50 years, humans haven’t.
We’re still suckers for a well-turned phrase, a charismatic piece of writing.
After all, are you reading this or having its content beamed directly into your cerebral cortex?
So, as someone who’s reviewed applications at tech firms large and small (from LinkedIn to startups), let me give you the low-down on whether you actually need a cover letter for your tech application.
Scenario 1: No Cover Letters Need Apply
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Ugh, Jeremy’s about to tell me that I do need to do a cover letter after all. And here I thought I was done already!”
Well, just know that there is one situation where you’re truly off the hook. And that’s when you see this specific phrase:
“No cover letter”
In that case, there’s nothing to be gained by submitting a letter. And it could even hurt you because, hey, if you can’t follow that simple direction, how are you going to rock the complicated algorithm they need you to work on?
So consider this a small karmic gift in exchange for all the other amazing cover letters you are going to write, starting with…
Scenario 2: Cover Letters Are Required
Now, obviously, if that “No cover letter” bullet becomes “No cover letter, no response,” you’d better break out your trusty Royal or its modern day equivalent.
But before you kick things off with “Dear Sir or Madam,” let me just explain where the bar is here. Because while you may see a cover letter requirement as a mere box to be checked, think about it from the recruiter’s perspective:
By requiring a cover letter, she’s just doubled her workload overnight. And given that she’s probably reviewing hundreds of applications for dozens of positions simultaneously, all those extra cover letters really add up.
So by taking this seemingly masochistic step, your recruiter is actually letting you in on a little secret: Cover letters are critical to my decision.
Because otherwise, why else would she do that to herself?
And thus, just know that your typical Mad Libs style cover letter isn’t going to cut it:
Take the form letter from your other applications
Find-and-replace the company’s name
Insert various Proper Nouns and Adjectives to describe your “unique” passion for this company
Instead, you’re going to want to give her something that actually differentiates you from the competition. Because that’s the beauty of cover letters.
Resumes, by definition, are formulaic: Name, Contact Info, Experience, Education, blah, blah, blah.
But cover letters are a chance to show off your personality, tell stories, and actually forge a connection with the human on the other side of the screen.
And that’s why recruiters value cover letters. Because if their job is inherently about differentiation (how do I go from a pool of 500 applicants to 5 interviews?), cover letters actually differentiate.
But again, only if you take the time to go above and beyond the form letter and really make yours different.
And to help you do that, I’m giving away my Amazon best-seller on that topic.
Scenario 3: To Write or Not to Write?
So as appreciated as the clarity of the first two scenarios is, here’s a much more likely scenario:
“Umm… they didn’t say anything about a cover letter!”
In situations like these, you’re going to have to make a judgment call. And I’ve got a handy rule of thumb for you.
Imagine that you apply without a cover letter. And two weeks later, you find out that you didn’t get an interview. Do you feel:
B) Like a deep, burning chasm of regret!
If your answer is “A,” skip the letter. That’s because you didn’t really want the job, so a well-written cover letter (which could take hours to draft, given your lack of passion) would have been a waste of time. Alternatively, if you had submitted a really weak, generic cover letter for purposes of speed, it would have only made you look worse anyway. So either way, you dodged a bullet!
But if you answered “B,” then absolutely, you must submit an awesome cover letter. Because then there are only two subsequent scenarios that are possible:
You don’t get the interview – but at least you’re not haunted by remorse until your dying day because you know you gave it your best shot.
You do get an interview – and even though you’ll never know whether your recruiter read your letter or not – it won’t matter once you’re eating free sushi at your hot tech job!
The Bottom Line
Yes, cover letters can feel like an anachronism in this day and age of LinkedIn profiles and Skype interviews. But just like Peggy Olson always put herself in the shoes of her target customers, think about what it’s like to be the recruiter reviewing your application. And then you’ll know whether and why a cover letter’s still relevant here in 2016.
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