Do You Need a Cover Letter to Apply to Product Manager Positions in 2020?


In this podcast, we explore the question: do you need a cover letter? Especially when applying to Product Manager positions, should your application include a cover letter? It’s a question we hear asked all the time. Cover letters in general are neglected by recruiters and hiring managers in the first two rounds of the Product Manager interview. When you qualify for the third and the fourth rounds, however, your cover letter will be reviewed by the interviewers.

Common stakeholders such as tech leads, UX designers, or business analysts, who will talk to you for these interviews will take a few minutes to review your branding documents and your cover letter will stand out as the document that can display your personality. It might seem like a neglected document but at this point, but if you’re wondering, “do you need a cover letter?” You should consider that your cover letter is the best indicator of your ability to present yourself as a good team player in written form. Don’t let this one document prevent you from qualifying for further rounds of the Product Manager interview.

Follow along with this podcast to find out how to make your cover letter powerful enough to convince the hiring team that you are the Product Manager that they are looking for!

A Podcast with Product Gym Co-founder Rich Chen

So this question is something I get all the time: is a cover letter a must while applying to product manager roles? And the rationale is people think that you don’t need a cover letter to go ahead and apply to product manager roles. You absolutely don’t need it.

Is it wise or advisable for you to go ahead and have one? Absolutely. Let’s take a look at what the cover letter is intended to go ahead and do for you. And let’s also go ahead and start by knocking out some of the misunderstood notions of what a cover letter can do for you when people are applying to a Product Manager position — or any job for that matter. They are wondering whether or not they should go ahead and submit a cover letter because they are thinking the recruiter is not going to go ahead and read the cover letter.

And they’re thinking that recruiters don’t read cover letters. Absolutely true. Recruiters don’t recover letters. And in fact, they actually can’t. The truth of the matter is, when you’re the first line of defense against somebody that’s trying to break into a company per see, a recruiter’s job is largely to go out there and try to sort out people that actually have a chance of working at that company versus people that don’t have a chance of working at a company. The resume pretty much tells you everything that you need to know.

But what about what happens after the recruiter? Who do you talk to after that person? There are four rounds to the product manager hiring process. There’s a round one interview, there’s a round two interview.

Product Manager Interview Rounds

Round one interviews are on the phone with a recruiter. Round two interviews are usually with the head or VP of product: Somebody that’s very high up in the product hierarchy that’s going to go ahead and interview you. And then round three is going to be the onsite. Usually, it’s a technical panel and then round four is another onsite that’s usually done with the business panel.

Now, is it possible that there are some business people that interview you during the onsite when it’s a round three? And there are some technical people that interview you during the round four? Absolutely. What they usually do is they block off a two to five-hour block and decide that, Hey, you know, we have this person coming in, who can actually go ahead and talk to this person.

Who Reads the Cover Letter?

Now between round two to round three, you’ll usually have a case study. So out of these four rounds of interviews, Who’s going to go ahead and read your cover letter? Well, the recruiter is not going to go ahead and read it. Why? Because the recruiter can go ahead and make a decision whether or not they want to speak with you based solely on how your resume looks. And they can go ahead and verify that assumption by looking at how your LinkedIn profile looks.

It’s very simple. They do not need to review your cover letter. That variable does not need to be factored in, in terms of their decision-making process. The resume and your LinkedIn are good enough. It’s going to suffice.

Now you talk to the round two person, who is a Head of Product or VP of product or somebody else you’re going to be reporting to you in the product management hierarchy. That person may or may not need to go ahead and look at your cover letter.

Why? Time is valuable; time is money. If the recruiter is going to go ahead and recommend that the Head of Product or VP of Product should go ahead and speak with this particular individual, in this case, let’s just say that the word of the recruiter is usually good enough. You think I should speak with this person; I’m going to go ahead and carve out 25 to maybe 45 minutes of my time to go ahead and speak with this person.

That person also doesn’t need to go ahead and review your cover letter, determine whether or not they want to talk to you because the word of the recruiter is good enough, but then let’s talk about round three and let’s talk about round four. By the time that you made it past round two, one more added barrier of entry is going to be your case study or your take-home assignment. Now, the people in the round three and the round four, they’re definitely going to review your cover letter.

Why is that, Rich? They’re going to go ahead and review your cover letter because of this. It only takes less than a minute to review your resume. It takes less than two minutes to go out there and stalk you on LinkedIn. They might go ahead and glance over your case study or in the case where you don’t have anything to present to them until the day of the interview and they have nothing to look at. You know, what else did they have left—interview notes? Let me tell you something. Not a single recruiter makes interview notes. Not every head of HR or VP of Product makes interview notes either (They should, you know, best practices aren’t always caught in practice). So what ends up happening?

Why Do You Need a Cover Letter?

If you are a tech lead or you are a design lead, or you are a technical project manager, or you’re somebody on the growth side yourself, you’re a financial controller. Before you speak with this candidate, you might want to, you know, go out there and review. Basically your entire branding portfolio, your resume, your LinkedIn, your cover letter, and maybe a case study. And maybe they might just have some notes on you in the form of a rough email.

They are absolutely going to go ahead and read your cover letter. You want to know why? The resume, as a document, is flawed. You know, I’m not saying it’s not necessary. It is necessary because there’s no other document that’s going to more accurately describe who you are as a professional in the shortest amount of time possible, but it doesn’t do a good job communicating who you are.

Your Cover Letter Shows Who You Are

People make decisions on hiring just like how they make decisions on everything else in life. It is very emotional, it’s not based on logic. Take a look at all the products that you love and brands that you’re a big fan of. Why do people buy Apple? Why do people go ahead and buy into, you know, a Macbook or an iPhone? Take a look at all the products on your iPhone. Take a look at all the brands that you buy into to take a look at all the stuff that you traditionally like buying your house.

You buy into it because these products have a story. You’re buying into the story because you like what these brands stand for. It’s either done consciously or done subconsciously. It is very difficult to convey your story as a person as to whether or not you’re a good culture fit. They want to know your personality and who you are as an individual: are you a fun person to work with?

Would I even consider wanting to hang out with you over a resume? Your resume is largely to go out there and communicate one thing: functionality. Can you either do the job or do you have a reasonable intelligence and go out there and figure it out? But that’s not enough when it comes down to hiring.

I imagine a good amount of those people could do the job. You probably just determined this isn’t the person I want to go out there and work with. And we make hiring decisions based upon people that we want to work with. Your cover letter is an opportunity for you to showcase who you are as a person and whether or not people actually want to work with you.

And it’s also a phenomenal opportunity to go out and show off your writing skills. In product management, I mean, 95% of the job is stakeholder management. They also want to take a look at it. How does this person communicate? Can this person articulate themselves well? In other words, can you write out how it is that you feel? Can you get a point across on a document?

People Hire Who They Want to Work With

So, you know, when people ask me, Rich is a cover letter absolutely a must when applying? No, it’s not. You can go ahead and apply without a cover letter. However, the companies that you do want to go ahead and work at, the companies that you do want to be a part of, they’re going to want to know who you are.

Because they’re going to have a lot of people that are applying for those companies that are very well qualified for the roles. You have to imagine there’s so much talent out on the street right now. They could hire anybody that they want. Companies still choose to hire people that they want to work with.

And your cover letter is your opportunity to show a company who you are and why they would enjoy working with you. So, it’s better to go out there and have something and not need it versus to go out there and need something and not have it. You, you don’t want to go ahead and miss out on this.

I have interviewed many Product Managers in my day. I’ve also recruited for all of the major tech firms across the country, as well as the most exciting starters between New York and San Francisco. And I’ve met plenty of Heads of Products that only look at cover letters.

You want to know why? They’re like, well, my resume looks kind of shitty. That was a legitimate answer. Most people’s resumes look bad. I mean, people go ahead and work with us because we make it look phenomenal. But most people’s resumes look awfully bad, bad, bad. But the cover letter… making a cover letter look great is the easiest part.

Having Trouble Writing a Cover Letter?

If you’re having trouble with that, go ahead and schedule a free consultation. We’ll work that out with you, but don’t miss out on these little steps. I’ve seen so many people miss out on opportunities just because they didn’t take the time to do this. And honestly, putting together a good cover letter, if you’re using our process and you can talk to our coach about it, shouldn’t take you more than 45 minutes.

Do you really want your effort spent on 45 minutes on something to be the differentiator between what it is that you could have done? What it is that you could accomplish, a kind of company that you could have got into? Because what were you going to do for that other 45 minutes anyways? You know, take a look at videos on YouTube or Netflix or Instagram? Invest this forty-five minutes wisely.

it’s going to go out there and pay off dividends for you in the future. And don’t miss out because ultimately you are the one that’s going to work at this company. And you’re the one that has to bear the pain of missing out on companies you are really excited about.

All right, this is Rich, one of the co-founders here at Product Gym. We look forward to speaking with you soon. If you have similar questions about the Product Manager interview and brandingmake sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel to be the first one to know about our releases.

Need help with crafting a good cover letter? Schedule a call with us now to let us help you with this arduous task!
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