Has the Cover Letter Jumped the Shark?

Confused Keyboard

by Ray Colegrave

You’re not the only one: The cover letter has been a source of anxiety for many people, for a very long time.

An article in The Atlantic, The Cover Letter: A Short History of Every Job-Seeker’s Greatest Annoyance, suggests the first use of the “cover letter” in the context of employment was in September, 1956, in a New York Times classified ad for Dutch Boy Paints for an opening to be an industrial paint chemist.

Old Job Ad Asking for Cover LetterThe first sign that cover letters were common enough to be a source of anxiety for job applicants was a “Sell Yourself” advertisement in 1965, in the Boston Globe.

Read the whole article; it’s pretty entertaining. Bet you didn’t know Leonardo Da Vinci submitted the 1st resume for a position with the Duke of Milan 500 years ago?

Ideally, a cover letter introduces applicants in such a dazzling fashion that employers are immediately compelled to delve into the sender’s resume.

Great in theory, but is it effective in the current labour market? Does it remain a valuable tool in your job search arsenal?

Recently, Leo, our wily workshop facilitator in downtown Victoria, sent Job Club participants to the streets to ask just that. In general, the response was yes; business people still value a cover letter. But what kind of cover letter depended on who was reading it.

One retail operator indicated resumes would not be considered without one. Others who preferred email applications felt only a brief text message was needed with a resume attachment. Even if a formal cover letter was attached, the resume would be viewed first and the cover letter maybe viewed later.

Most online applications allow cover letters to be uploaded or provide space for a text only letter, but usually not a required field. However, you should still do it! Never lose an opportunity to provide information setting you apart from others and enhancing your application.

Now, I could write a scintillating cover letter “How to”, but the internet is already loaded with them. A Google search on “cover letter tutorials” generated 15,400,000 results. Odds are pretty good you will find something useful. One of my favourite sites for all things job search is About.com; check out their Cover Letter Writing Guide which is complete with tutorials and samples.

Instead, let’s consider variations on traditional cover letters or replacement alternatives. That should prove much more exciting, creative and maybe even fun!

A couple of interesting variations are the Guerilla Cover Letter and the Pain Letter:

Guerilla Cover Letter: proposed by Jay Conrad Levinson and David E. Perry in their book Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 3.0, argues the cover letter is like a personal sales letter:

“…your opportunity to go beyond the resume and its focus on the past and target what employers care about the most – themselves…tell employers what’s in it for them right up front…you can be the most competent person in your field, but if you can’t connect your skills to their needs, you will go undiscovered.” (p. 125)

It consists of six parts:

  1. Salutation addressed to the hiring manager by name (no shortcut here – get the name).
  2. A “grabber” line to really get their attention. Could be in the form of a question or a headline.
  3. A “here’s-what-I-can-do-for-you” section that clearly demonstrates previous successes which you could achieve again for them.
  4. A paragraph implying you have more to offer and hinting they read your resume.
  5. A call to action telling them specifically when you will call and, if that is not a convenient time, requesting they call you to set a more convenient time.
  6. Your contact information clearly and readily available.

Check out the You Tube video, How to Write a Guerilla Cover Letter. The book’s a good read; perhaps there’s a copy available in your local library.

Pain Letter: No, it has nothing to do with the pain of writing a cover letter. Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of the Human Workplace, advocates that we Forget the Cover Letter – Send a Pain Letter Instead (article is on LinkedIn, you need to be logged in to read it).

Ryan suggests that if an employer is planning to hire, there is an underlying reason for it – a problem the company is experiencing that needs to be resolved, a PAIN point. Applicants need to convince the employer they can cure the pain, be the aspirin that makes the headache go away.

The pain letter formula – start with a hook (don’t talk about you – talk about them), state the pain (underlying reason why this job is open) and tell your dragon slaying story.

Watch Liz Ryan compose a Pain Letter(TM) on the fly in this Fox Business interview (start at the 8:25 point, about 2 min 50 seconds);  you can also listen to the podcast, How to write a hook for your pain letter(TM). Another podcast answers 20 Fast Questions & Answers about Pain Letters(TM).

In Part 2, we’ll take a look at an Employment Proposal, a Video Cover Letter, an Infographic, and a Slideshare Presentation as ways to replace that boring old cover letter.

Until then!

Ray Colegrave – Resource Room Coordinator/Facilitator – GT Hiring Solutions, Victoria

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