Let me start with a confession – one that hopefully provides some insight into my motivations – I helped write one of the best-selling cover letter books about 20 years ago, and in the ensuing years, I’ve helped thousands of jobseekers write cover letters that helped attract the attention of hiring managers like you.
Why do I believe cover letters are essential tools to jobseekers and hiring managers alike? Because resumes and CVs only tell one part of the story.
Resumes are statements of facts: a listing of education, jobs, skills, and accomplishments. Whether you use an applicant tracking system (ATS) to sort and find the best candidates or you still review resumes by hand and choose the best candidates, the final people chosen to interview will have very similar qualifications.
To me, resumes from similar job candidates are interchangeable. In fact, in one instance when I was consulting with an employer, I was given a stack of resumes to review for the final cut. While reviewing the resumes, I actually tossed two of them thinking they were duplicates because the jobseekers had used the same template and the documents looked almost identical.
What Makes Cover Letters Special?
Yes, let’s admit that cover letters are a bit archaic—a bit unwieldy in today’s world of recruiting via candidate databases. In fact, one 2015 Jobvite study found that nearly 65 percent of recruiters considered cover letters unimportant when it comes to sizing up candidates.
So, if the majority of the industry has lost confidence in this document and most modern hiring technology can’t find a streamlined way to evaluate cover letters, why should you still ask for them and seriously consider them?
Unlike resumes, cover letters – when done correctly – offer hiring managers insights into the personality and motivations of each candidate.
While many resumes follow cookie-cutter formulas, a cover letter is a jobseeker’s attempt to showcase the one or two things he or she believes makes them unique (and sometimes more qualified) candidates.
Furthermore, if communication is a vital part of the job you’re looking to fill, a cover letter gives you a chance to see each candidate’s mastery (or lack thereof) of written communication, including sentence variety and vocabulary. Someone with poor communications skills can easily put together a resume (even copying examples of other people’s accomplishments), but it’s much harder to do the same with a cover letter.
Cover Letters as an Additional Screening Tool
If your quest is to fill each job opening with the best fitting candidate (however you define it), then you should not only request cover letters with each application, but also develop a rubric for evaluating cover letters and the value/role they play in selecting finalists.
In my experience, many jobseekers – if they tackle cover letters at all – develop one version that seems to work for them and then simply make some modifications to it for each job they apply for. The better, smarter jobseekers also have a basic template or format they use, but they take tailoring it to the extreme – highlighting exactly why you should call them in for an interview.
In talking with recruiters, I have also found that those who usually read cover letters are often disappointed by them – because they are poorly written, a rehash of the resume, or simply irrelevant. That said, when they come across a cover letter done correctly, that candidate immediately stands out from the others.
Given this information, consider developing a system for evaluating cover letters based on whatever criteria you judge most important, such as:
- Communications skills
- Understanding of job
- Understanding/knowledge of employer
- Critical reasons for considering candidacy
- Use (or misuse) of industry buzzwords
- Potential fit with current team
- Explains fit for job/employer (and outlines deliverables)
- Tells a story that showcases why applying for job
Final Reflections on Cover Letters
Yes, I have already admitted it; I am biased about the value and potential of cover letters as a tool for helping you identify the best candidates to interview.
Interestingly, from anecdotal and other research, I have found that most hiring managers agree with me; though, perhaps not for the same reasons. For example, some hiring managers who generally do not read cover letters still believe they should be part of the application process – partly because it forces jobseekers to work a bit harder to apply for the job and partly as a failsafe in case some of the finalists are too similar and they need another point of data to help differentiate them.
Thus, I suggest you continue requesting cover letters from applicants. Furthermore, if you seek the best candidates, then I also recommend (at least on a trial basis) utilizing cover letters as a key element in your decision-making toolbox.