The curious history and future of the cover letter

Photo credit: Alexandar Iotzov, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Alexandar Iotzov, Shutterstock

Many jobs require applicants to submit cover letters, but why? Over at The Atlantic, Stephen Lurie explores the history of the cover letter, tracing its origin to the early 20th century when the United States began adding more white-collar jobs and the service-sector grew:

Why would the cover letter be appropriate for a service-sector economy? Unionized manufacturing workers were human cogs in complex systems, talented at their specific task but not required to come face-to-face with clients. It’s reasonable that the growth of services would correspond with the mainstreaming of cover letters, if their purpose is indeed to qualify the person behind the accomplishments…

In its original incarnation, the “cover letter” provides an explanation for what can’t be found in the raw substance. Dotted throughout the 30’s and 40’s are other examples of the “cover letter” as in introduction to business, economic, or political matters—particularly between associates. Much like today’s cover letters, the original intent was to paint a picture that might not easily emerge from the denser material that was, well, under cover.

Of course, as jobs change over time, the usefulness of the cover letter is called into question. Stephen argues that employers are beginning to view cover letters as a performance and are increasingly relying on examples of real work to determine a candidate’s fit.

Google, it’s said, often prefers to see the coding already being done by individuals before reaching out to them—skipping the cover letter entirely. Some social media companies now require tweets as proof of competency, not long-form writing. For companies those that do still require cover letters (in whatever sector), many have simply stopped looking at them. Jobs that don’t deal in formal letter writing—let’s say 95% of them—can find better surrogates elsewhere in samples of a candidate’s work.

Read the rest of his essay on The Atlantic.

What do you think of the past and future of the cover letter?

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About Author

Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.

1 Comment

  1. I have also read that some large companies are scanning cover letters to pick up on ‘key words.’ So the likelihood of your cover letter being read by a human has decreased somewhat.

    Still, if I were looking for work, I’d turn in the most special cover letter I could possibly learn to do. I’m afraid if I don’t, someone else will.

    Dave Potts

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