In theory, cover letters are meant to be the “why” behind the resume, the story of what has led you to apply for a role.
But, increasingly, tech companies and startups are tossing them aside.
If you couldn’t already tell by the title, I ain’t too bullish on cover letters!
👎 Why cover letters suck
#1: High effort for every single application at an early stage of the process
Cover letters take a lot of energy for candidates at an early stage of the application process, well before candidates know whether they even have a half-decent shot at landing an interview, let alone the job.
To make matters worse, you require a unique document for every single company, unlike resumes where the same core document, with a few keyword tweaks/rearrangements, gets the job done.
Put it this way… imagine writing a formal marriage request to every single person you find attractive, BEFORE you know if they feel the same way.
#2: A lot of companies barely read them
I’m sure you’ve heard the classic rumours of ‘Recruiters spend an average of X seconds reading your resume’, where X seems to magically fluctuate depending upon who is telling me the story.
At the end of the day, however, it’s still the primary tool used to compare and assess candidates for most roles (the portfolio may be more relevant for designers & some engineers).
Cover letters seem to get even less attention, with a lot of companies just chucking them through an Applicant Tracking system and scraping keywords, or ignoring them altogether.
From Monster: “Only 18% of hiring managers rank the cover letter as an important element of the hiring process, Addison Group, a Boston-based employment agency, found.” Yikes. Optimise your energy elsewhere.
#3: They often contain redundant information
The traditionally expected format often involves repeating information that can already be found in your resume, and so the marginal value add is questionable. It often feels like an arbitrary formality for both parties.
#4: Written cover letters discourage creativity
A written cover letter isn’t necessarily the most engaging format to showcase your level of enthusiasm and passion for what the company is working on.
Video or real-world interaction (sike, COVID) have the advantage of richer emotional expression.
Those aside, there are other written content candidates can make that adds more value to companies or showcases a greater understanding of the company.
✨ So, where else can candidates prioritise their energy to stand out?
If you’re SUPER keen on a role and want to stand out, here are some alternative ideas on how you can better leverage your time to engage with companies instead of a formal written cover letter:
#1: LinkedIn & Twitter DMs
Why send a cover letter into an application portal black hole when you can just reach out to founders and employees at the companies you’re interested in via LinkedIn or Twitter and build real relationships?
On the internet, everyone is just a message away. Just be clear on who you are, why you’re reaching out, and what’s in it for them (effectively a mini-cover letter in of itself).
Learn more about the sort of work they do, see if there’s any way you can help them out, and ultimately ask if they’d be open to taking you on in some capacity.
Check out our practical step-by-step Guide To LinkedIn DMs, which includes 2 real-world examples of how I used LinkedIn to land startup roles.
#2: Video Cover Letter / Video Resume
An emerging format that challenges the status quo of a stuffy old document and adds a layer of human expressiveness in showcasing your personality, energy, facial expressions, gestures, etc.
This is a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd (especially when unprompted).
In particular, it’s a good fit for people-oriented roles like sales, marketing, customer success and people operations, where your ability to engage with others is your core skill.
Modern job platforms like Hatch are helping to spread the video cover letter as a new norm in Australia, and TikTok has even launched a separate website to send TikTok videos to companies as resumes.
#3: Engage With Additional Company Initiatives for Users
Oftentimes, companies will have channels to engage in a more high-touch manner with superfans and power users.
These can be your secret sauce to get your foot in the door. It might be an ambassador program, a beta testing program, user interviews, or user-generated content competitions.
Sign up and build a relationship from here by giving them thoughtful feedback and/or creative ideas.
Fun fact: joining an ambassador program was how I ended up landing my first ever internship in university for an Andreesen Horowitz-backed fintech from Silicon Valley.
Doubling down on this, if you can’t see these sorts of programs around, use the LinkedIn / Twitter DMs route and ask! Great way to add value early.
#4: Create Content Relating To The Company
If you think a company is doing REALLY cool stuff and want to get noticed by them, you can even try making content about them.
Create an article, newsletter, LinkedIn post, Facebook post, Instagram post, heck, whatever kinda post!
Ideally, tailor this to the type of role you’d like at the company. You could do a rework of their UX design, a breakdown of their business strategy, a review of their product offerings, or an analysis of their marketing approach.
Be sure to tag the company, and don’t be afraid to reach out via LinkedIn or Twitter to share it with founders/employees directly.
📝 Okay, but what if a company explicitly asks for a written cover letter?
Here are 2 approaches you can consider (depending on the type of company):
A tried-and-tested approach for more traditional corporate roles
The most ‘classic’ format I’ve seen used by peers who landed roles at more old-school established companies. In a nutshell:
- High-level intro expressing your interest in the role
- 1 * paragraph deep diving on the reasons why the company and role stand out to you
- 2 * paragraph highlighting one of your core skills, along with associated experiences, and linking this to a certain part of the role (be sure to reference the list of skills in the job description to help guide your thinking here)
- Conclusion reiterating your value proposition and interest
Want an example? Here’s the cover letter I used to land an interview at Bain.
3 & 3 Format
A no-bullshit, clear approach to succinctly explaining your value proposition and interest
When it comes to a no-nonsense cover letter approach that focuses on the most important info, this is my favoured style.
At the end of the day, companies want to know two things:
- Why should they choose you?
- Why are you choosing them?
So give it to them plain and simple. List 3 key factors to answer each of these questions.
For why they should choose you, don’t just repeat exactly what’s said on your resume. Double click on a select few core skills and experiences you have which set you apart from other candidates and position you to succeed in the role.
For why you’re choosing them, leverage the 3P Framework from our Why X Company newsletter.
And when it comes to formality, if you’re applying to a startup, don’t be afraid to take a more conversational, authentic tone versus the uptight “To whom it may concern” vibes of a more traditional cover letter.
Want an example? Here’s the cover letter I used to land an interview at P&G.
At the end of the day, I’m just one data point; check these reads out as well for a second opinion: