In which I prepare to demolish a rightfully loathed tradition
Okay, I’ll get straight to the point: Cover letters should never be mandatory. At most, they should be optional. Ideally we would do away with them altogether.
This idea had been fermenting in my head ever since I began applying to Real Jobs/Internships as a college student, but I was finally able to pour it out like a nicely aged wine to a friend who inspired me with her latest cover-letter-induced woes. Said friend—intelligent, accomplished, adventurous, a master of career reinvention and yet unbendingly true to herself—had worked long and hard across at least two continents to sustain a fragmented family and now hovered on the cusp of another transition. It was senseless, I mused, for such a person to be held back by the inherent limitations of a cover letter. And, I realized as I mused, those inherent limitations could fill books far longer than the ones said friend had written.
No one relishes writing cover letters. No one I know, anyway. Not even writers…especially not writers. I see several problems with the process, and I make it a rule never to complain without proposing a solution.
For one thing, the writer is asked to strike a pretty unrealistic balance. You have to “sell” yourself while remaining humble, tout your strengths while not coming across as arrogant. This is a task for anyone, but particularly difficult for women, who are conditioned (often imperceptibly) to downplay themselves and their abilities. I recently asked another woman if she had ever heard the term “haughty” used to describe a man. The fact that she hadn’t says a lot—and of course that’s nowhere near the worst of the words, inside or outside a professional context.
For another thing, a letter cannot replace an oral or otherwise live conversation. I guess what I’m saying is to cut right to the interview and incorporate the questions and details that might otherwise be demanded of a cover letter, because the letter itself does nothing to convey personality. “But the cover letter is where you get to introduce yourself!” Except it really isn’t. The cover letter is where you tell the hiring manager what they want to hear, use all the punchy keywords they scan for. Very little of your own voice is able to shine through; the proliferation of templates even implies a certain prohibition of one’s own voice. (“To the hiring manager: I was [thrilled] to see your opening for a ________…” It’s essentially the antithesis of writing.
For a third thing, some people just don’t have the time. Take a single parent who works several jobs and is looking to advance their career. Their time is precious, and the amount they can spend applying to jobs probably scant. Must they be denied a chance simply because they aren’t at leisure to craft the “perfect” letter?
Now, all this invective does not account for those who rely on writing as their sole or primary means of communication. Employers would need to make provisions for non-speech-enabled candidates. Even so, the changes need not be drastic: the interview could take the form of a live text chat, leaving the candidate at liberty to submit the complex answers required in real time.
Besides, if hiring managers don’t go to the trouble of more than skimming these letters—as the career officers tell us, possibly in a somewhat subversive attempt to compel us to write worthy ones—then why bother at all? That’s what gets me, how little difference the most potentially personal part of the initial application makes in the end. We all know a direct interpersonal interaction is more fulfilling, nerve-racking though it may be at first. As I’ve said before, human beings are social animals—we’re bound to come away from a face-to-face exchange feeling more satisfied, like we’ve imparted aspects of our souls that would be lost in a formulaic letter. (Because we will have.)
Not to mention the many highly qualified job seekers who simply don’t excel at writing, or at fitting their writing into these parameters. I ask you, companies, is a cover letter truly worth “weeding out” the poor writers, thereby sacrificing some promising candidates who might in fact have everything you’re seeking and more? Running the risk of never seeing their souls?
‘Soul’ may seem like a strong word; most jobs don’t exactly put our souls on the line. But if we want to find meaning in our work, we need to be able to express our search for that meaning, and everything that has led us up to this point in our search, in as hospitable an environment as possible. Which, frankly, a cover letter does not provide. And because of all its shortcomings, it creates an obstacle within applications where it should create an opportunity. Job applicants are automatically antipathetic to the idea of having to slog through a cover letter—and the last thing you, the company, really want is to be stirring up antipathy and frustration where before there was at worst neutrality, if not hope.
Don’t kill hope. In an age of impending economic collapse, when we are prevailed upon to rethink the way we conduct professional life, we have the chance to end this hampering practice for good. Join the #NoMoreCoverLetters movement now!