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August 2016 – Jay Kaufmann

In this ongoing series of exclusive articles for UXswitch, Jay Kaufmann at Zalando speaks about the importance of the cover letter, once thought to be defunct. It need not be an essay, just make sure the content is personal and engaging.

The cover letter is dead.

When we invited human factors students to Zalando this February, one student expressed surprise that my recruiting colleague and I both advised them to personalize their cover letters. She had been told by recruiters not to send one.

That same month, Fast Company stated that the cover letter is dead. They talked to the executive behind a 2015 Jobvite survey, who said only one third of recruiters read cover letters.

The numbers from Jobvite underscore a sort of common wisdom that has been building lately. Just five years ago not sending a cover letter was considered revolutionary (at least by Lifehacker). The advice to forego a cover letter was published by Forbes in 2014, Fast Company (again) in 2015, and Monster this March.

And this advice has been heeded; it’s become common practice. Our application form for Zalando UX positions has space for a cover letter, but many job applicants don’t use it. The variations on a cover letter that I see — in order of frequency — are:

  • No cover letter
  • A generic cover letter
  • A personalized template cover letter

 

I very rarely see a truly personalized cover letter.

Long live the cover letter.

The various articles linked above provide some great advice about how to improve your application. But for me they miss the point. They don’t get to the heart of the matter.

A cover letter is not to explain everything about yourself in 1 page, as The Muse nicely points out. A cover letter is not to duplicate your CV in essay form. A cover letter is the start of a personal conversation. Any conversation benefits from a friendly tone and some interest in the other party.

Someone who speaks constantly of themselves has a hard time building relationships.

An effective cover letter shows interest in the job, in the company and perhaps even the hiring manager or team members. It shows understanding and curiosity.

At it’s heart, a cover letter is a vehicle for empathy.

Personalize your cover letter.

I can sniff out template cover letter texts in 2 seconds, and I stop reading after 2 sentences unless the standard pitch is particularly eloquent and/or unique.

As an in-house UX hiring manager, I don’t see the extreme volume of CVs that an external recruiter does, but I see enough to get bored by standard claims or cookie-cutter texts. I truly appreciate the empathy that designers display when they address me as a person or us as a company personally.

Elena Pavlenko, our current UX Student in Residence, nicely personalized her cover letter simply by saying “I’ve been a customer for some years”, naming some of the innovations in our eCommerce portal that appeal to her, and ideating quickly — in just 1 sentence — about the future of online fashion.

Personalizing takes time and does not guarantee success, but the finer you tune your message to the specific job, the more likely that you can trigger the conversational and emotional interaction that we strive for as UX designers and user researchers.

Expose your motivation.

Your desire to do the job is just as important as your skills. And you’ve listed your skills in the CV, so don’t repeat yourself but dig deeper. My team leader Achim Grunwald says, “The cover letter is an opportunity to show empathy and passion for the job.”

Focus on your motivation in a cover letter. What fuels your passion for the job? Why do you love design? Why do you imagine working at e.g. Zalando, would activate your passion?

If you don’t write a cover letter, I can easily assume that you are just looking for a job, any job, and applying to as many fairly relevant openings as possible. In this case, please forgive me if you get back a template rejection letter.

From your perspective on the outside, it’s admittedly difficult to understand enough about a company culture or specific job to consistently hit the ball out of the park with personalization. But take a swing at it. Imagine what the situation within the company would be that would really inspire you and talk about that. If your vision and expectations are on target, you’ve scored. If they’re not, perhaps you will have generated enough interest to step up to the plate again. Or perhaps you struck out… in which case you almost certainly don’t want to play on that team anyway.

A final thought in that vein: Be true to yourself. If you read a job description that’s uninspiring to you, don’t apply. A half-hearted or rote application is a waste of both our time.

Keep it short.

If you can convincingly explain why your heart beats for this position, you can keep your cover letter to 3 or 4 sentences — maybe even 1 or 2.

The smarter and more personalized, the shorter it can be. One personalized sentence will grab me more than paragraphs of your own biography.

Write a conversation opener, not an essay.

Consider repackaging or reinventing the cover letter.

As far as the format goes, I’m neither dissing nor defending the traditional cover letter. I don’t care what format your personal appeal takes. I’m just asking for you to acknowledge the other party in the conversation, to invite the recruiter or hiring manager to the dance.

Do open-heart surgery and personalize your CV to me. Take the lean approach and type it into our comments field. Indulge your inner designer geek and create a visual calling card, personalized to the company (as our esteemed colleague and collaborator Joe Brown of IDEO did).

If you’re applying through an agency, the candidate bio that they present can outline your motivation and start the conversation, as specialist UX recruiter Sean Pook pointed out to me.

Or play it conservatively and revive the cover letter as a whole in its classic form.

It’s all good.

Just make sure the content is personal and engaging.

I look forward to the conversation.

 

jay kaufmann uxswitch zalando

 

More from Jay:

Rejection: It’s not about you, honestly.

At UX job interviews, say “I” when you mean “I”

Make Sure Your UX Portfolio Gets Seen … 5 Tips

 



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