Is the cover letter outdated? Should I even write and send them when I apply to jobs?

I know many people disagree, but hear me out.

As someone who has read thousands of applications at a number of selective universities, and today, as someone who helps applicants craft those applications, I know how powerful a stellar piece of writing (aka content) can be. And that is how I view the cover letter—as a piece of content.

When you don’t submit an optional essay or other pieces of material on a college application, you are missing out on an opportunity to help the reader get to know who you are and what you are all about. By submitting optional materials, you are creating a potential space to wow them before they even get to the rest of your application, and set yourself on the path to winning them over and fighting to admit you. Nothing that is optional on a college application should be seen as optional.

The same goes for an application to a full-time, part-time, or internship role, which is why the clients I work with in college, as an early career coach, write cover letters. Optional? Yes. However, they know the importance of going above and beyond to stand out in the crowd. They don’t miss out on an opportunity to get an extra piece of content—to market themselves—to their potential employer.

And we don’t write boilerplate cover letters that rehash the resume; that’s a waste of your time and your potential employers time, too. If you are not willing to take the time to get creative with your cover letter skip sending one. However, if you decide to view the cover letter as your first task in this possible new role, get writing! Show your value proposition, aka what you have to offer, which is why they should hire you and not other applicants.

Here’s how I coach applicants to begin writing a killer value proposition:

  1. Outline how your employer will benefit from your unique experience. What special skillets do you have and how have you used them effectively in other roles? Remember to show and not just tell; use concrete examples that go beyond what you have listed on your resume.
  2. Outline the “bottom line” benefits of hiring you. Will you drive sales or exposure? Increase efficiency and drive down costs? Use concrete examples that go beyond the quantitative aspects of your resume.
  3. Outline other ways in which you are unique. Do you speak more than one or two languages? Do you give back to your community as a volunteer or mentor (PS: you should!)? Do you take part in something unique for fun? Now is your chance to demonstrate what type of community member you will be, which at many companies, is just as important as the knowledge and skills you bring to the table.

After hashing out your value proposition, think about how to get creative leading into it. Keep in mind, cover letters don’t need to be lengthy. Less than one page is ideal, and I have seen quite a few at around 350 words that did the trick. Clear and concise goes a long way in my book, too, as does a hook—an engaging entry into the letter—which can be an attention grabber. Muse has an amazing article with over 30 attention-grabbing intros. Here are a few that caught my eye:

  1. My last boss once told me that my phone manner could probably defuse an international hostage situation. I’ve always had a knack for communicating with people—the easygoing and the difficult alike—and I’d love to bring that skill to the office manager position at Shutterstock.
  2. When I was seven, I wanted to be the GEICO gecko when I grew up. I eventually realized that wasn’t an option, but you can imagine my excitement when I came across the events manager position, which would have me working side by side with my favorite company mascot.
  3. Most candidates are drawn to startups for the free food, bean bag chairs, and loose dress code. And while all of those things sound awesome coming from my all-too-corporate cubicle, what really attracted me to Factual is the collaborative, international team.
  4. If truly loving data is wrong, I don’t want to be right. It seems like the rest of the team at Chartbeat feels the same way—and that’s just one of the reasons why I think I’d be the perfect next hire for your sales team.

Content will probably always be king, and if so, then the cover letter isn’t dead. So get comfortable with creating it whenever you have the chance—including life’s “optionals,” like cover letters!


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