Fortune writer Denis Wilson was kind enough to quote me and review my research on cover letters in his recent article, “Are we killing off the cover letter?”. It’s a great discussion (I’ll publish excerpts below) of the pros and cons of cover letters.
In the article, I gave a variety of reasons cover letters are obsolete in today’s job market, based on my extensive research on the topic.
However, what I didn’t cover is that while cover letters are rarely read, when they are, they can actually hurt your chances.
OK, I can hear you asking, “How could a cover letter hurt my chances?”
Here are 2 big reasons a cover letter lowers your chances of getting an interview:
- Applicant Tracking Systems: Cover letters aren’t keyword searched by ATSs. Why, you ask? CEOs/VPs of the top 10 ATS companies all told me that their clients almost never set up their ATSs to keyword search multiple documents, only searching the resume – because it’s extremely expensive to their clients to set up the system to search multiple documents. When I surveyed HR reps and recruiters, they confirmed that their ATSs keyword searched resumes, not cover letters.
- Cover letters = reader distraction: It’s an well known industry statistic that recruiters/HR reps/hiring managers make decisions to interview or not interview in 15 seconds or less. TheLadders published a recent study showing an initial “gut feel” first impression gets many resumes tossed after just 4-6 seconds. Even if the reader takes all 15 seconds, they can’t open and read two documents in 15 seconds. Since they can only read document in 15 seconds, which would you rather your reader open and read – a cover letter that most don’t believe, or a resume that 97% of your audience uses to determine if you get an interview?
The “other” document, in this case the cover letter, is a distraction to your reader. If you want them to read your resume, don’t distract them with a cover letter.
“… Increasingly, employers aren’t even giving a first glance to cover letters that applicants submit. In 2009, Phil Rosenberg, president of reCareered, an online hub for job search advice, surveyed over 2,000 hiring managers, HR reps, and recruiters working in different industries and found that, more often than not, cover letters don’t come into play. ‘I found 90% ignored them and 97% made a decision whether to interview or not based only on the resume.’
So who or what is at fault for the demise of the cover letter? Any why are so many employers requiring it if they don’t even read them? It comes down to a combination of changes in technology, human behavior, and the job market in general.
How we got here
In the 1990s, employers and recruiting firms started building relationships with early job boards, such as Monster and Careerbuilder. At this time, the job boards and the applicant tracking systems (ATS) that companies and recruiting firms use internally were integrated and the level of automation and default options were set up. This job was primarily handled by IT departments, not recruiters or HR, says Rosenberg, who was a manager at staffing firm Robert Half in the mid-2000s. ‘There were default options. And one of those default options was to ask for cover letters. So every ad my company ran asked for cover letters but, strangely, my recruiters didn’t get them.’
Rosenberg noticed that his colleagues in the recruiting field were experiencing this too. He found the problem was that in most cases the ATS and other internal HR systems weren’t set up to keyword search cover letters. So recruiters would never see the cover letters as they typed in a few keywords when looking for solid candidates.
Recruiters weren’t shedding any tears over the loss. A lot of recruiters don’t have time to dig into the cover letter anyhow. “Whether it’s a recruiter or an HR department, the job is to efficiently find people that meet minimum qualifications,” says Rosenberg. ‘It’s not to find people with best qualifications. And these are processes that have been almost universally adopted, even with small firms.’
Add to that the fact that in a stagnant job market there are an overwhelming number of candidates for every open position. ‘You gotta remember we used to be in a job market that was pretty consistently, from WWII to 2007, a job market of candidate shortages and skill shortages,’ says Rosenberg …
Is it curtains for the cover letter?
Things have gotten so bad for the cover letter that Rosenberg has started advising clients to put their effort into customizing their resumes and forget the cover letter entirely. ‘The process is set up to reward candidates that heavily customize their resumes for each individual opportunity, company, and hiring manager,’ he says .. ”
From Fortune.com “Are we killing off the cover letter?”, by Denis Wilson
If you’d like to see my original publication of this study, see “Is your Cover Letter An Ineffective And Obsolete Tradition?“.
For more discussion on why cover letters don’t work and some exceptions, see “Stop Writing Cover Letters And You’ll Get MORE Interviews“.-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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