An Ex-Googler’s Honest Opinion About Writing A Cover Letter

If you spend five minutes on LinkedIn, you’ll be bombarded by posts commanding you to “create a great cover letter.”

Scroll some more and you’ll find all kinds of how-to videos, templates, and examples to whip this sacred document into shape. 

Mind you, I’m not questioning if following this advice will improve your cover letter. 

It probably will.

My question is this:

Even if your cover letter is as good as it can possibly be, is that
THE MAIN THING that’s going to get you a job?

If push came to shove, most career experts would say: “Well no, it’s probably not the main thing…but it’s still good to do!”

To which I’ll reply: “Maybe. But so what?”

Shouldn’t a job seeker’s attention be focused on the main variables behind the result? 🤔

This whole obsession with cover letters is a classic Streetlight Effect phenomenon:

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is.”

Cover letters are “where the light is” in a typical job search.

“Write a good cover letter” is the simplest advice for career experts to mindlessly give.

The MAIN factors governing the growth of your career –– relationships, timing, building rare and valuable skills –– are less obvious. They take longer to cultivate. They aren’t really paint-by-numbers pursuits.

When clients join my coaching program, I tell them up-front: “This is going to be a six-month process. It may happen sooner, but it may well not. And we are going to systematically build your candidacy for the companies that you choose.”

This is intentional work. It takes real thought and strategy. So instead of looking THERE, many career experts become fixated on basic actions like writing a cover letter. Something you can do in an hour, and feel good about, but doesn’t usually yield a great return.

You know what yields a great return?

Being referred into the company.

I applied to Google unsuccessfully five times with resumes and cover letters that I slaved over.

What finally got me in was a referral from a director at Google named Ben who everybody liked.

I didn’t actually write a cover letter that time. It didn’t even matter. Ben’s endorsement spoke louder than any words I could have written

Now I’m not saying there’s never a time or place to write a killer cover letter. They work great when you’re applying to smaller companies with fewer applicants for a given role.

In situations like that, where someone actually reads your cover letter, it could help you a lot!

But when you start applying to Big Tech firms, you’re talking about hundreds or thousands of applicants. For one role. 

Take it from me, someone who interviewed over 2,000 people at Google:

There isn’t enough time for hiring managers to read all of the cover letters that they see.

Not for more than a few seconds, anyway. And usually not even at all. I’m just being honest with you.

Cover letters will never HURT you, but they have very limited power to ACCELERATE you!

For this reason, my clients get their resumes and their cover letters into an “objectively perfect” state. 

1-2 pages, no typos, and solid bullets conveying the quantifiable impact that they’ve made.

And then we shift gears to the exponentially more powerful move of building relationships inside target companies.

That, in my experience, is where the real magic lies in a successful job search!