The Cover Letter is Dead: 3 Essential Skills Job Seekers Need Instead

Why We (Used to) Need Cover Letters

The origin of cover letters appears to begin with our transition away from a manufacture-driven workforce to a service-oriented workforce, dating back to the 1930s.

At this Atlantic article points out, cover letters as requirements really started to appear in employment listings in the mid 1950s, largely popularized by the major newspapers at the time: The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune.

We’re More Educated

Even by 1960, it’s estimated that only 7.7% of Americans had a college degree. When you compare that with today’s rate of college grads (37.5%), it’s astounding to see that the number of college-educated Americans increased by 387% in 60 years.

We’re More Connected (And Accessible)

Second, let’s not forget the limited reach of technology available to job-seekers and employers during this early cover letter era. There were no online social profiles, no resume databases, and very few (if any) public artifacts of that individual’s prior work experience. Aside from a resume (which, I’m sure even then, was known to be a document easily “inflated” by its creator), it would have been much more challenging to uncover other details about that individual’s work background and thought processes.

Suffice it to say, between my blog, my Instagram, and my Twitter profile, prospective employers don’t have to look that hard to learn a lot about the things important to me.

We’re More Agile

Finally, cover letter were born about in an era when it was practically far less feasible to take on multiple jobs at once. You couldn’t both operate as a grocery store executive and as an accountant, as that would require being in two places at once.

In today’s workforce, a single laptop is all you need to readily access multiple jobs — no matter what “your office” happens to look like.

A Better Cover Letter

As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I haven’t submitted a cover letter for any new job in the past decade, nor have I required one from anyone that I’ve hired (though occasionally people do submit them voluntarily). This seems to have no bearing on the degree to which I have been able to share my thought processes and ideas with potential employers, and vice versa, for me to pick up on interesting tidbits to help me make decisions about potential candidates to hire.

  • 1. Cold emails
  • 2. Post-networking follow-ups
  • 3. Weaving project-based experience into your career arc

Essential Skill 1: Perfecting the Cold Email

With everyone’s email address readily accessible (with a little sleuthing), job-seekers today need to know how to write a direct, succinct, and personal email to a wide range of people. In my experience, emails (or honestly, even LinkedIn messages or Twitter DMs) supplant the need for full-on cover letters. They are all about targeting the right person for your ask, meeting them where they are, and being clear about your intentions. This is a skill that takes time to practice, and it’s a skill that I wish more high schools and colleges taught their students.

  1. Keep it short.
    I know it’s hard, but you really want to limit your cold emails to 5–7 sentences tops. The structure should loosely include:
  • A salutation or greeting
  • One introductory sentence on how you know (or found) that person
  • One sentence about who you are (this is your elevator pitch, in brief)
  • One sentence on what you’re looking for (a job, an internship, some advice, etc.)
  • One sentence where you make your “big ask” (would they meet you for coffee, pass along your resume to the hiring manager, hop on a call for 15 minutes, etc.)
  • A thank you and sign-off
  • “Could you share my resume with your hiring manager?”
  • “Would you consider me as a candidate for your intern position this summer?”
  • “Do you have 15 minutes to point me in the right direction?”

Essential Skill 2: Leaning into the Follow-Up

Compared to the 1950s, job-seekers today have one major thing on their side: Spontaneous collisions with potential employers. Since we’re more connected than ever, it’s easier than ever before to find your way in the physical (or virtual) room alongside other leaders who might be helpful to you on your career journey. A few examples:

  • You attend an online Zoom webinar about how NFTs work and thought the main speaker was incredibly inspiring
  • You sit next to someone on the train ride into the city who happens to work in the exact industry that you’re trying to break into
  • You get looped into a Twitter thread with the CEO of the front-running startup in the space
  • You meet someone at a friend’s party who just got a job at your dream company
A pretty straightforward example of the type of post-networking follow-up email that I might send today. (Note: Debbie is not a real person, so that context is made up, but you get the idea.)

Essential Skill 3: Weaving Projects into Your Career Story

Finally, the last essential skill of a job-seeker today: Storytelling.

  • Original: “I’m a journalism student at Northwestern University with a minor in French. On campus today, I’m in the marching band, choir, and I’m part of a writing club.”
  • Reframe: “I’m a detail-oriented writer with a passion for storytelling, seeking out a wide variety of perspectives, and synthesizing complex information. Through my participation in music clubs, I’ve witnessed the collective power of people with a shared goal, which is why I’m excited to think about organizational design at the corporate level in my career.”
  • What does it say about me to have chosen this particular major at school?
  • What transferable skills have I learned that I can apply in any context?
  • What business or life lessons might exist from my after-school activities?

In Conclusion: The Cover Letter is Dead

So let’s leave it where it started: In the mid 1900's.

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Bethany Crystal

Bethany Crystal

A little bit web2, a little bit web3… Today’s projects: @Bolster & @Zeitgeist_xyz , board @CompSci_High ; ex @USV , @StackOverflow , alum of @Northwes