Cover letters are so 20th century, right?
You can just imagine someone dressed like they’re starring in Mad Men, sitting down at a typewriter to crank one out.
What could be more vintage—more obsolete—when compared to the booming tech industry here in the 21st century?
Well, the truth is a little more complicated than that.
And here’s why: Even though technology has certainly changed in the last 50 years, humans haven’t.
We’re still suckers for a well-turned phrase, a charismatic piece of writing.
After all, are you reading this or having its content beamed directly into your cerebral cortex?
So, as someone who’s reviewed applications at tech firms large and small (from LinkedIn to startups), let me give you the low-down on whether you actually need a cover letter for your tech application.
Scenario 1: The Posting Says “No Cover Letters”
Most people think position descriptions are full of tricks. However, you can take instructions at their word. Meaning, there’s one situation where you’re truly off the hook. And that’s when you see this specific phrase: “No cover letter”
In that case, there’s nothing to be gained by submitting a letter. And it could even hurt you because, hey, if you can’t follow that simple direction, how are you going to rock the complicated algorithm you need to work on?
In this instance, when a traditional application isn’t called for, I suggest following Muse Master Coach Erica Breuer’s advice to send on a “Wham-Bam Message” in the body of the email.
Scenario 2: The Posting Says Cover Letters Are Required
Now, obviously, if it’s listed as part of the application requirements, you’d better break out your trusty typewriter or its modern day equivalent.
But before you kick things off with a boring, form letter, let me fill you in on where the bar is here. Because while you may see a cover letter requirement as a mere box to be checked, think about it from the recruiter’s perspective:
By requiring this, she’s just doubled her workload overnight. And given that she’s probably reviewing hundreds of applications for dozens of positions simultaneously, all those extra cover letters really add up.
So by taking this seemingly masochistic step, your recruiter is actually letting you in on a little secret: Cover letters are critical to her decision.
Because otherwise, why else would she do that to herself?
And so, the typical Mad-Libs-style version (find-and-replace the company’s name; insert various proper nouns and adjectives to describe your “unique” passion for this company) isn’t going to cut it.
Instead, you’re going to want to give her something that actually differentiates you from the competition. Because that’s the beauty of these! They’re a chance to show off your personality, tell stories, and actually forge a connection with the human on the other side of the screen.
Remember, it’s a recruiter’s job to go from a pool of 500 applicants to five interviews, and cover letters are often a big part of that decision. Of course, yours has to stand out for the right reasons
Scenario 3: The Posting Doesn’t Specify
So, as nice as it is when you’re told one way or the other, here’s another likely scenario: The company doesn’t mention whether it expects a cover letter or not.
In situations like these, you’re going to have to make a judgment call. And I’ve got a handy rule of thumb for you. Imagine that you apply without a cover letter. And two weeks later, you find out that you didn’t get an interview. Do you feel:
B) Like a deep, burning chasm of regret!
If your answer is “A,” skip it. That’s because you didn’t really want the job, so a well-written letter (which could take hours to draft, given your lack of passion) would have been a waste of time. In fact, skip applying because what’s the best-case scenario now? You get offered a job you’re not at all excited about?
But if you answered “B,” then absolutely, you must submit an awesome one. Because when you do send one on, either you won’t get called in (but you’ll know you did you gave it your best shot) or you will land the interview—and even though you may never know whether the hiring manager read it or not—it won’t matter once you’re at your new job.
Yes, cover letters can feel like an anachronism in this day and age of LinkedIn profiles and video interviews. But the best applicants think about what it’s like to be the person reviewing the application. And that’s the answer to why a cover letter’s still relevant here in 2016.
Want a step-by-step guide to crafting a knockout cover letter? Get my Amazon bestseller for free—an exclusive for readers of The Muse!