Is Your Cover Letter An Ineffective And Obsolete Tradition?

Dec 2 2009 in Cover Letters, Featured, reCareered Blog by Phil Rosenberg

Another career author asked me to share thoughts on cover letters, and how Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS – the dreaded HR database) use them. I thought readers would find my responses helpful.

I’ve done some interesting research on cover letters, demonstrating them to be an obsolete and ineffective tradition in today’s job search.

Here’s some interesting statistics of what happens to your cover letter:

  1. Based on interviews with hundreds of HR Managers & recruiters: Many HR staffs don’t forward cover letters to hiring managers. Most HR departments scan resumes, but don’t scan cover letters into ATSes.
  2. It’s a well published statistic that hiring managers spend an average 15 seconds spends making an interview/non interview decision. You can’t read both a resume and a cover letter in 15 seconds. Based on interviews with hundreds of executive-level hiring managers: 90% read the resume first, 66% don’t even get cover letters.
  3. According to a Linkedin poll I ran of hiring managers, HR staff & recruiters: 80% read the resume first. So it looks like Recruiters and HR staff don’t read cover letters often, but maybe a little more often than hiring managers.
  4. Based on interviews with hundreds of executive-level hiring managers: No one has ever told me that they would deny an interview to a candidate whose resume met their hiring criteria, but did not submit a cover letter.
  5. Based on interviews with hundreds of executive-level hiring managers: Most hiring managers related that they have denied interviews to candidates qualified by their resume, but disqualified by information on their cover letter.
  6. Based on interviews with CEOs and VPs of the Top 10 job boards: Job Boards don’t keyword search cover letters, only resumes.
  7. …Would it surprise you that:

  8. Based on a Linkedin poll I ran, 96% of candidates either customize a cover letter sent with a virtually static resume, or don’t customize anything at all. Only 4% send a customized resume.

There are some exceptions – really small companies that don’t have an HR department and can’t afford recruiters (typically less than 10 employees). The really small company Hiring Manager goes through these resumes and cover letters manually, and the percentages skew a bit more towards considering cover letters when outside an ATS. However, hiring managers that look at cover letters tell me that cover letters are more likely to be disqualifiers…and no one has ever related that the lack of a cover letter is a disqualifier in itself.

I started researching this when I managed recruiting practices. Even though my recruiters advertised asking for cover letters, they never got them through the ATS, only if a candidate sent directly to them through networking or a referral. Cover letters were blocked, in a sense, digitally discarded by corporate decision – it was viewed that the recruiter was more efficient in finding candidates doing keyword searches on resumes.

I found that most of my clients’ HR departments handled cover letters in the same way (see The Secret of Search Efficiency). This practice happened during a time of candidate shortages when unemployment was near 4%. Imagine now, where there are 6 times more unemployed than advertised jobs.

Since my recruiting days, I’ve interviewed thousands of HR Managers, recruiters, and Hiring Managers. I’ve interviewed the top brass at the largest job boards and the top Applicant Tracking Systems (see What I Learned at SHRM).

They all give the same consistent message – Cover Letters are an obsolete tradition, and work against the candidate (see Are You Buying The Mac and Cheese of Job Search?).

However, candidates obviously don’t realize this. 96% put the majority of their customization (if any) in their application in a cover letter, using a largely static resume. They hope that the words on their resume magically match the keywords a company’s HR department or recruiters search for in their prescreening process…and the odds stink, generating candidate response rates that typically range between 0-5%, even in better hiring years (most average less than 2% today for active candidates).

When I talk to former VPs and Directors of HR, I ask them how their former company systems manage applicants. I hear amazing responses when they realize the application processes that they managed in their own former companies would leave them buried in the very database that they managed….even if referred into a company by a friend.

Conclusions: In effect, cover letters are rarely part of the decision – but when considered, they work against the candidate more often than for the candidate. The cover letter effectively decreases candidates’ interview chances. Candidates can increase their chances by spending time heavily customizing their resumes, and ignoring cover letters.

What do you think is happening to your cover letters?


Want to do more than just complain about a bad economy?

To attend our next complimentary live webinar featuring action items to double your resume response rate and number of interviews, plus live career Q&A with Phil Rosenberg of reCareered, register at .

Available Now On Amazon: Job Search Secrets - Rethink Your Job Search Now, By Phil Rosenberg

Phil shows you why your current job search strategies work against you and how to replace them with strategies that improve your odds. Phil provides you with research - cold, hard statistics provided by job boards and hiring managers themselves, to show you what works for you and against you in the worst job market in our lifetimes.

Download Job Search Secrets on Amazon

Join our mailing list for newsletters, announcements of complimentary upcoming webinars and other job search resources. Sign up at

For access to more information:
Connect to Phil Rosenberg on Linkedin:
Follow reCareered on Linkedin:
Like reCareered on Facebook:
Follow Phil Rosenberg on Google+:
Follow reCareered on Twitter:
Join Career Change Central on Linkedin:

Author: Phil Rosenberg

You might also like

Sometimes Cover Letters Do Help – An exception to the rule Most of the time, Cover Letters can hurt your job search more than help it. But there are some...
Manuscript vs. Machine: republished from TheLadders I was recently interviewed for this article published in TheLadders on 12/15/09, and wanted to republish...
Comment On Fortune Article – “Are we killing off the cover letter?” Fortune writer Denis Wilson was kind enough to quote me and review my research on cover letters in...
Are You Buying The Mac & Cheese Of Job Search? So much of today’s job search advice is like Mac & Cheese. It’s comfort food. It’s not very...