Earlier this week, I read this Wall Street Journal article about how job seekers are officially fed up with cover letters.
I don’t blame them. These overly structured, multi-paragraph essays take hours to refine and more often than not, simply disappear into the black box of applicant tracking systems and anonymous inboxes.
I was honestly surprised to see this article at all. I haven’t written a cover letter since 2012 (nor have I required one from anyone I’ve hired), and that’s about the year where I think they should remain.
Here’s why cover letters are outdated and what job-seekers and employers should be using instead to evaluate candidate fit today.
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 the time, this made a lot of sense: As work became less about task completion and more about problem solving, employers needed a better way to learn about what was going on in the minds of prospective employees. It wasn’t enough to simply know, “Can you type up this letter?” but rather, “How might you write this letter?”
Over the years, particularly starting in the mid-50s and -60s, cover letters became the norm as a supplemental part of the job application for candidates interested in any number of service-oriented roles, ranging from sales and accounting to executive management.
But of course, the job market today looks a bit different than it did in the 1950s. Here are a few notable distinctions:
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.
As a greater number of people acquire degrees (as our work has become less about task completion and more about knowledge sharing), it’s a lot less likely for a standard job applicant to be pivoting out of say, a job as an assembly line worker, to a desk job at a startup. By contrast, job-seekers of today have been brought up “knowledge-worker-native.” They already operate in this paradigm of work. Suffice it to say we no longer need proof of this by way of a cover letter.
Educational attainment in the U.S. 1960-2020 | Statista
In 2020, about 37.5 percent of the U.S. population who were aged 25 and above had graduated from college or another…
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.
That’s obviously no longer the case today, where we arguably have the inverse problem of oversharing of public information. Suffice it to say, Today, if someone wants to know how I perceive the world, all they have to do is read a handful of my blog posts on this platform, follow me on Instagram, and read my last dozen Tweets.
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.
Today, of course, in a digital-first era, we can be in two places at once. Working multiple jobs simply requires juggling a few inboxes, giving your phone number to a few more people, or checking a few different Slack channels each morning.
As more and more workers are fractionalizing their time (myself included), it becomes easier to pick up one-off projects with a variety of employers at once. Arguably, the ubiquity of my unilateral commitment to any single employer need not exist in the same way that it might if I were putting all of my time at one organization. Cover letters are hardly necessary when negotiating a smaller project scope with a potential new employer. A simple email or PDF of a proposal for a contract will do just fine.
So now that we’ve agreed cover letters are a thing of the past, it begs the question, what should we use instead?
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.
Of course, I’m in my mid-30s now, and I’m privileged enough to have a large network of people who already know me from over a decade of work experience in the industry. It’s different for those who are just starting out in their careers, who may not yet have access to deep, interconnected networks, or the “word of mouth” effect that happens so much among executive-level hiring.
So if we can agree that getting to know a candidate is important, but a cover letter is no longer the right tool for the job, what should job-seekers practice instead?
In my opinion, there are three primary skills for job-seekers, regardless of what stage you’re at in your career. They are:
- 1. Cold emails
- 2. Post-networking follow-ups
- 3. Weaving project-based experience into your career arc
Let’s unpack each of these a bit more.
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.
There are a lot of ways to write really bad cold emails, but here are my three tips that work in nearly every context:
- 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
That’s it. Take it from someone who receives hundreds of emails: If you go much beyond 7 sentences, it’ll never get read.
2. Keep it personal.
With cold emails in particular, it’s really important that you get their attention right off the bat. Try answering the question that’s running through their minds: “Why am I uniquely qualified to help this individual?” You can do this in your introductory sentence or in the sentence about what you are looking for from them in terms of advice. If your email is fungible and can be copied and sent to any other recipient without making changes, you’re not writing it with enough personal details.
3. Make a clear ask.
You’d be surprised how many cold emails I receive that don’t actually ask me for anything in particular. Don’t make your recipient read between the lines. Come up with a clear and direct request. Some examples:
- “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?”
This should be the last sentence in your email, right before your sign-off. It should be very easy for your recipient to respond with one of two answers: Yes, or No.
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
In each of these cases, job-seekers need to be looking to these spontaneous, serendipitous collisions as career-enhancing opportunities. Additionally, in each of these cases, a follow-up note or email is entirely warranted (and would likely be welcomed by that individual). The problem I’ve noticed with job-seekers, however, is that they aren’t looking at these one-off moments as events that they can leverage in their favor, they don’t know exactly the right way to continue the conversation, or even worse — they promise to follow-up, but fail to do so.
After learning about the art of crafting a rock-solid cold email, it’s equally important for job-seekers today to recognize those little moments that can be career openings for them. The post-networking follow-up is the biggest way to catapult yourself into an entirely new network of opportunities. You just need to be able to recognize it when it happens to you.
Essential Skill 3: Weaving Projects into Your Career Story
Finally, the last essential skill of a job-seeker today: Storytelling.
Arguable more important than ever before, storytelling is the way you sell yourself, and it’s the art of weaving together all of your past work into a cohesive narrative that makes sense to another person. The reason it’s more important than ever is because there’s more noise than ever. As a candidate in a job search, it’s up to you to connect the dots for your potential employer. Let me say that again: It’s your job to tell your story. Nobody else can do it for you, and this means it’s critical to spend time laying out the puzzle pieces of your career arc (or career aspirations) to come up with a compelling case for your candidacy.
You’ll note that I referenced projects here, not past experiences or employers. I find too often that people lean on the names of the companies where they worked as proof of their qualifications. Unfortunately, that leaves a lot up to the imagination of the person who may be interviewing you. You may have worked at Google, but what exactly did you do there?
My recommendation for any job-seeker is to break apart your past roles (or even past courses in school) into discrete, specific projects that you were proudest of, or that most clearly demonstrate your level of expertise in a particular domain.
Here is just one example of how you might achieve this. And to prove that you don’t even need real work experience to form a compelling story, I’ll share my version of myself from college.
- 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.”
In the original example, you’ll notice the details are there, but the application is missing. It’s really hard, but try asking yourself questions like:
- 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.
Instead, as a job seeker, aim to practice and refine the essential skills you need to stand out in a service- and knowledge-based workforce today. And as an employer or hiring manager, think about how you might broaden the way that you seek and assess candidates at your organization. The world of work is moving faster than ever — don’t get left in the dust.