Are we witnessing the downfall of the cover letter?

Are we witnessing the downfall of the cover letter?

October 28, 2022

letter writing

Embarking on a job search is no walk in the park. Sprucing up your CV, dusting off your designated ‘interview suit’, filling out the same details on another online application portal for the 100th time…

But if there’s one part of the job application process that fills us all with dread, it’s writing a cover letter. As you glide effortlessly through every step of the online application, you’re suddenly met with a request that stops you in your tracks, like a guard that magically appears at the gates of a fairy-tale palace. There it is, standing out on the page in bold letters: please attach cover letter here.

Nowadays, the cover letter feels like an anachronistic remnant of the past that has somehow lasted all the way into the 21st century. It’s the most tedious and time-consuming step in the job application process. According to a recent poll from Fishbowl by Glassdoor, 58% of professionals believe that a cover letter is superfluous. Meanwhile, a 2017 survey revealed that only 26% of recruiters consider cover letters an important element of the hiring process.

So, this begs the question: is the cover letter dead and is it about time we buried it? No, many hiring managers and recruiters would argue. Whilst writing one is a burden, a cover letter could be more useful to a job application than we care to admit.

A waste of time?

Cover letters appear to be universally loathed by candidates and recruiters alike. For what they’re worth, it can feel like writing a cover letter is a disproportionate waste of time. You could spend hours carefully crafting a cover letter for a specific role, only for it to then go unread. Many recruiters openly admit to skipping over cover letters during the screening process.

In an AI-driven world, writing a cover letter can feel like shouting into the abyss. When you submit your application to an online portal, many larger companies now use AI and machine learning to analyse applications at the initial stages, meaning that cover letters don’t even end up in a hiring manager’s hands. For many candidates, it feels unfair that they’re expected to demonstrate their passion for a particular role and exhibit their personality when they can’t even be guaranteed a human response in return.

In a candidate-driven market, cover letters risk falling into obscurity. When candidates have the upper hand, can companies truly expect cover letters as a prerequisite? It’s easy to see why many candidates consider them to be the bane of their existence. Rejection in and of itself is painful enough, but added to that, all the effort wasted on a cover letter that you composed from scratch? It’s onerous and downright demoralising.

Nowadays, cover letters tend to feel like a routine tick-box exercise. And we’re increasingly finding – to the relief of many candidates – that more companies are making them optional, rather than a component as compulsory as the CV.

A necessary evil?

Though it can be tempting to skip over the gruelling process of writing a cover letter (especially when it’s optional), it’s still wise to go that step further and write one if you’re given the option. However, there’s no point whatsoever in churning out a generic, regurgitated cover letter for the sake of it. If you’re going to go the extra mile, it can’t be half-hearted.

When done right, a good cover letter is your secret weapon. Writing a detailed yet concise cover letter that is specific and targeted to the role in question is a labour of love, one that doesn’t simply go unnoticed by hiring managers. Up against the often mundane and robotic CV, the cover letter is a chance to showcase your personality. It’s your own personal marketing material.

Think of it this way. Hiring managers spend hours sifting through an endless pile of CVs belonging to faceless applicants, yawning as their eyes lurch carelessly over each one. But then, all of a sudden, the catchy opening line of your cover letter catches their eye. If you use the cover letter to your advantage – as an opportunity to show what you’re made of in a way the CV does not allow you to express – it breathes some life into your application.

Sure, there’s every chance that a hiring manager is inundated with applications and never happens upon your cover letter in the first place. But it’s crucial to change your mindset. As you’re composing a cover letter, don’t think to yourself: this is a waste of time, no one’s going to read it anyway. Instead, tell yourself: I’m using this added opportunity to make sure a glimmer of personality shines through on my application. Adopt a more positive mindset about the possible outcomes of writing a cover letter. You have more to gain from writing one than you have to lose by not.

And in particular cases, a cover letter is indispensable. Particularly if you’re working in a creative field or industry. If this is the case, the cover letter serves as a prime opportunity for you to sell your wares; let your creativity shine forth from the page in a way that isn’t possible simply by listing your skills and successes in your CV.

A cover letter is also critical if you’re looking to change careers completely. If you’re looking to pivot into a new sector, you should be utilising the cover letter as a chance for you to clearly explain how your experience is transferable to a new role. A cover letter gives you a voice at an otherwise pretty restrictive early stage of the application process; a voice that you can then elaborate on once you’ve made it to that coveted interview.

Granted, that doesn’t make writing a cover letter any easier. Useful as they may be in certain cases, they’re a pain to create. The easiest way to tackle this issue is creating a cover letter template, and simply adapting this to the role in question. That doesn’t mean just copying keywords from the job ad into your template; you still genuinely have to think about what you can bring to the company and why you want to work there. But having a template at your disposal makes the thought of writing a cover letter that little bit less daunting.

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