Why cover letters don't matter

"I sent a cover letter. It should be getting me that job now."

"No, Lieutenant, your job search is already dead."


Alison Doyle defended cover letters today and was rather dismissive about the idea of finding your job by connecting to someone using social media.  I won't take up the social media debate now, but I will put to bed the idea that you should spend any time whatsoever on a cover letter.

What gets read first, a resume or a cover letter?  Ask anyone who has ever hired anybody in the last twenty years.  The answer is a resume.

Here's the short version of the proof, then:

Is your resume awesome? 

If no, then I'm throwing it right in the trash, along with the cover letter, which I didn't read, because your resume isn't awesome.

If yes, and it does not come with a cover letter, will I contact you?  Of course!  Half the resumes I got were from resume databases or LinkedIn, so much of the time, a resume or profile is all I have anyway.

Once you get contacted, then it's up to you and who you are... and that's what you were trying to do with the cover letter in the first place--get a response.  No hiring manager has ever contacted someone with a mediocre resume who wrote a really nice cover letter.  They never get to the cover letter of a mediocre resume--they don't have time!  If they say they did, they're lying to make it seem like they do extra work like read all the cover letters than come in.  I'm sure they don't rip the tags off their pillows either. 

More important than a cover letter, if a resume contains a link to a site, I am going to visit it.  If this site is a blog, and you write about your passion for the industry you're looking to get into or your insights, I'm going to be pretty damn impressed.  I certainly won't ask for a cover letter after that.  Think of this like rock, paper, scissor.  Resume beats cover letter.  Awesome blog beats resume and obviously also beats cover letter. 

No, you can't submit the link to your blog on the front end of a company website, but would Alison suggest that if I was hiring someone to run the career guidence office at a school, that being the About.com job search guide since 1998 wouldn't be enough?  Why would you even ask for a resume at that point?  When I left Oddcast a year and a half ago, no one asked for my resume, but I got 25 job leads from people who had been reading my blog for years.  Cover letters?  What's a cover letter?

Well, Alison defines a cover letter as "...a document sent with your resume to provide additional information on your skills and experience."

She suggests the following format:

1. First Paragraph - Why you are writing
2. Middle Paragraphs - What you have to offer
3. Concluding Paragraph - How you will follow-up

You know, because that's the "basic format of a typical business letter."

A typical business letter?

Has anyone actually received a "business letter" in the last five years?  (Besides ones from daughters of Nigerian generals looking to deposit money in your bank account or official looking solicitations for credit cards.)

Today, professionals are sending one line e-mails from their Blackberries that affect millions of dollars.  Have you ever seen what three paragraphes looks like on a Blackberry?  It might as well be Paul's Letter to the Corinthians.  People want just the facts, as quickly as possible.  Three paragraphes of prose and I'm either on to the next e-mail or I'm asleep.

It's funny, because, today, she expanded her definition of a cover letter to include "via email or a LinkedIn message".   Can you even type three paragraphs into a LinkedIn message?  I'm pretty sure there's a character limit, and if there wasn't, I'd think the person was just trying too hard or didn't really understand normal behavior on that site.

Twenty years ago, cover letters served a purpose.  They introduced who you were and how you found the position--because before widespread use of the internet, how you found anything was actually interesting.  Now, asking how you even know someone is becoming a joke, because we're hyperconnected.  As for who you are, we all know that your cover letter is your marketing pitch--no hiring manager takes that seriously.  They'll do their homework to figure out who you are.  They'll ask Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn who you are, who you're connected to, etc... and if they can't find you there, for a growing percent of the few available jobs, you might as well be persona non grata.

In today's world, if you're contacting someone you don't already know to get a job, you've essentially already failed.  It's too easy to find people and use your network to reach them that coming in without a recommendation reflects pretty poorly on the candidate.  If I was going to hire you to do sales for me, I certainly wouldn't expect you to just cold call all your leads.  I'd hope you'd at least figure out how to be innovative and networking savvy enough to find your say to a warm intro.

And yes, I know, not everyone uses the internet, and not everone can afford a computer, and three quarters of the world lives under the poverty line--I get it.  It's a terrible situation, but we're talking about job advice written on blogs.  There's a clear target audience here of people who have some amount of advanced education, socioeconomic mobility, etc.  For *those* people--if you're thinking a cover letter is going to get you anywhere, you're wasting your time.

There are also some jobs out there where your digital presence just doesn't matter at all because you're basically talking mass hiring of a certain particular skill.  Take nursing jobs.  Hospital systems need to hire 1000's of registered nurses a year.  So long as they have the right certifications and whatever references are needed check out, you're basically in, or at least in line.  Many civil services positions are like that as well.  However, not only does a digital presence not matter to be a police officer or a firefighter (Good thing for my dad, a 20 year FDNY vet), you also don't need a cover letter.

So let's focus on jobs that supposedly need a cover letter--jobs that are sought after enough where the candidate is looking to stand out from the crowd.  So we're assuming a crowd here.  Now put yourself in the position of the hiring manager.  Not only do you get 100's of not 1000's of resumes for each position that you have an opening for, but you're searching resume databases to find candidates, too.  It's physically impossible for anyone to read more than a handful of cover letters. 

Even resume expert Louise Fletcher says that "back when I worked as an HR manager, I never read cover letters".  Louise worked as an HR manager back in 1995.  She did say that her boss liked to read them, but assuming her boss was probably at least 5-10 years older than her, if not more, you're talking about a guy who started his career in the early 80's--almost 30 years ago.  Are we really giving advice to people on how to get hired by dinosaurs are should be dispensing advice on how to be the most innovative candidates out there and to try to get hired by the most innovative companies.

But Alison says "Innovation works for a lot of people/industries. Not others."

Everyone who wants to get hired into an industry that doesn't value innovation, raise your hand.

Ok, everyone with your hands raised, finish up working on those cover letters!