This chapter is a free excerpt from A Crash Course In Cover Letters: Adapting An Old School Tool For Your Digital Job Search.
Instead of cause for sweaty-palmed concern, you should view this as an opportunity to present yourself and your accomplishments to a well-rounded degree that just wasn’t possible in the pre-digital days. Bloggers are landing book deals. Job hunters are connecting with recruiters on Twitter. Website designers are building expansive portfolios before they even finish high school. The internet, particularly social media, has both complicated the job search—everything you do online is up for scrutiny—and put a great deal more agency in the hands of job searchers themselves: you can create, manage, and promote your personal brand in an unprecedented way.
It’s easy to assume that in this brave new world of digital job hunting, the trappings of the traditional job search no longer apply—but that’s simply not true. While how we look for work and promote ourselves as qualified candidates has certainly changed over the last decade, the fundamental tools we use to do this—the resume and cover letter—are still hiring staples. While few quibble with the continuing need to have some sort of document that presents our work history, education, and accumulated skills (as a resume does), and no one seems ready to part with their business cards just yet, it’s the humble cover letter that tends to be branded as archaic and unnecessary. Cover letters—we hear—are redundant, a waste of time for the applicant and the hiring manager, no longer useful in the age of online applications; and no one knows how to write them, anyway.
In fact, a recent piece on DeadSpin asserted that “There's no good way to write a cover letter because your two options are to be boring or to terrify everyone by trying to NOT be boring.” This is just plain wrong. While there are a lot of ways to get derailed with your cover letter—we’ll address some of those later—cover letters aren’t inherently boring and they are far from unnecessary or redundant. They shouldn’t be generic cut-and-paste jobs or rehashes of your resume. Done right, cover letters provide an additional means by which you make your case for hiring to the employer. Far from being job search relics, they continue to provide value—both to you and to the hiring manager—in the application process. And, yes, they are still considered essential documents by a majority of employers. As reported by the Washington Post, 53% of employers surveyed give the edge to applicants who include cover letters over those who do not, and 91% claim that a well-written cover letter improved the odds of a less qualified candidate reaching the interview stage. A cover letter can truly make or break your application.
In short, cover letters provide:
- A snapshot of writing skills A cover letter is your chance to show off your communication skills. In the era of text-speak, LOLcat talk and the unironic use of “intensive purposes,” people who are able to write clearly, succinctly and in accordance with the rules of grammar stand out from the pack. A well-executed cover letter allows you to do that.
- An opportunity to present your personal brand Resumes are—or should be—pretty standard in their presentation. The focus should be on skills and experience, not wacky fonts, animated GIFS, or bombastic language. These are not documents to show off your personality; they’re more like spec sheets you’d use to compare properties when house hunting.
Cover letters, however, allow you to inject a little personality into your application. Think of them as the house listing ads that appear your newspaper’s real estate section. Your tone and content still need to read as professional, but you have the opportunity to showcase yourself, focusing on particular qualities of your choosing. In addition, you can articulate your enthusiasm for the position and the creative way you’re able to link your experience to the company’s needs.
- A means of standing out from the pack In the era of information overload, cover letters serve as point of differentiation among candidates. A hiring manager may receive hundreds of applications for a single position, many of which boast similar qualifications and any number of which represent applicants who could capably fulfill the position at hand. A well-written cover letter gives a candidate an edge by enticing a hiring manager to go to the trouble of reading the attached resume, and allows the candidate to succinctly sum up why he or she is a better choice for the job than the competition.
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