I’m going to come right out and say it: I like reading cover letters. However, I’m apparently part of a small minority if surveys are to be believed - and we’re not even a very vocal minority.
That’s because cover letters become increasingly hard to defend in a world where you’re already considered a bit old school when you send emails instead of using a messenger app.
Students hate writing cover letters. Most recruiters you ask hate reading cover letters. A cover letter is to recruiting what an appendix is to the human body: it had a purpose a very long time ago, no one remembers exactly what purpose that was, but somehow the thing has managed to stick around, being useless at best and a downright nuisance at worst. So why not just remove it from the recruitment process?
You could always argue that old habits die much slower than new technology is born. Which is a horrible argument for never changing anything. So, no, even I won’t defend cover letters. What I will defend gladly, however, is the function they are supposed to serve.
What cover letters were (and are still) good for
Roughly 60 years ago, those 3-paragraph long individual self-descriptions were cutting-edge innovation in recruitment. The novelty wasn’t the writing or that is was on paper, but the notion that when it comes to hiring someone “Certain factual information is vital, yet, equally important is some insight into what is in the minds of those charged with (...) responsibilities…” [You can find the whole article on the history of the cover letters in The Atlantic.]
Fast forward to 2017 and this notion is not less, but - if anything - more relevant than it was back then. When we hire so-called “knowledge workers”, we actually want to know what they can do with their knowledge - if they can structure it, if they can communicate it, if they can convince others of it. Yes, you can always refer to the CV, but (thankfully) humans are more than the sum of their educational background and work experience on paper.
“Always hire the better writer”
In short, we want a human moment when hiring someone and the oldest way known to create these human moments across time and space is writing and reading, whole sentences, paragraphs - stories.
Even the writers of the tech business manifesto Rework advise their disciples to “always hire the better writer”. Why? Because: “...being a good writer is about more than words. Good writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else's shoes. They know what to omit. They think clearly. And those are the qualities you need.”
For students & graduates, it’s a chance to shine
As much as students and graduates loathe writing these cover letters, I actually think they are the ones who can profit most from writing one. When you don’t have an extensive track record in work life and share the same education as everybody else, a cover letter is a chance to show that you are more than your grade transcript, your Excel skills (isn’t that a relief?) or your karate belts.
Of course, that requires that there is a human on the other end who actually reads it...and as I have pointed out earlier, students are (sometimes rightfully) in doubt that’s the case. That’s why I’m all for looking into new ways for creating human moments in the recruitment process - and preferably some that go both ways, so that applicants can see that the people hiring them are just that: people.
There are many different possibilities as to what that might be and it will be exciting to see the different solutions we can come up with. But until then, I’ll just keep on being a freak and read cover letters.
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