Research shines a little objectivity on the very subjective world of resumes and cover letters.
The internet is filled with guides to writing a cover letter for a job application. It’s enough to give you the impression that cover letters exist in a purgatory of near complete subjectivity, where the question: “what makes for a good cover letter?” has as many definitive answers as “which actor was the best Batman?”
But there is research on the topic, so we can inject at least a little objectivity into the debate. Back in 2016 researchers had a paper, Impression Management Use in Resumes and Cover Letters, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology. Their aim was to examine “impression management” (IM) content of real resumes and cover letters and test whether it made any difference to hirers.
Mmm, yes, IM
IM, if you’re not familiar with the term (nobody is, don’t worry) is everything but the hard facts. Where you went to school and previous job titles and places of work – these details are not IM. You telling a hiring manager that you excel both on your own and in a team (nice! They haven’t heard that before) – that’s IM.
The researchers separate IM into three categories which have their own subcategories. It’s worth looking at all of them, because they neatly capture everything that goes into cover letters.
- Superlative use (self-praise). Example: “I have exceptional attention to detail and am intensely passionate about collaboration. I am the bee’s knees. The Grand Poobah of efficiency.”
- Adjective use. The more measured variant of the previous. Example: “I am an organised and creative person who is proficient in Microsoft Office. I am the bee’s thorax. The Grand Poobah of efficiency is my cousin.”
- References to fit. Example: “My experience makes me a perfect match for this role. My qualification in X suits your need for Y. I have a phone, you are a call centre.”
- Entitlement/enhancement. Example: “I steered production and outperformed goals. Our profit margin was #% above average for the company. I saved the CFO’s life with my preternatural sense of smell.”
- Credit to external sources. Example: “My time at university was spent perfecting X abilities. This year in management was recognised with a citation. X says I am the most hardworking and least boastful worker they’ve ever had.”
- Institutional ingratiation. Example: “Your organisation is one I’ve long kept my eye on. I have long been a proud purchaser of your products.”
- Individual ingratiation. “I would very much like to meet you, and talk about how I can add value. Thank you for taking the time to read this. I saw your picture on the job ad and I thought, ‘Is that a young Brad Pitt?’”
- Outlook/values. Example: “I enjoy overcoming obstacles and am keen to hear constructive criticism. I have a desire to make a true difference. Some people save trees; I save forests.”
So that’s IM. You no doubt recognise some of these approaches from cover letters you’ve read or written. But which did the researchers find were most common, and which were most effective?
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The researchers found that both cover letters and resumes contained self-promotion (think of the dazzling way people describe the roles they performed in a resume) but only cover letters contained much ingratiation.
While this isn’t surprising, it does make me wonder whether it might be a shrewd idea to personalise resumes as well as cover letters. Highlighting how each specific role in your CV has made you a good fit for the current opening could make you really stand out.
The study also looked at gender disparities in IM tactics. Turns out there wasn’t much difference except in one area. “Correlations were significant for credit to external sources, in which self-promotion is softened by ingratiation, and for positive outlook, indicating that male applicants used ‘‘softer’ IM tactics more often than female applicants.”
So women were more likely to have superlatives and adjectival use on their own. Men were more likely to use hybrid and ingratiation to level out their self-promotion. While this is interesting, the researchers note that the job titles their subjects were applying for were “more representative of female than male gender-typed roles” and so male candidates may have felt they needed to do more to demonstrate that they would fit the role.
The researchers focussed on three aspects to measure candidate effectiveness. Job fit, Organisational Fit/Interpersonal Attributes (OFIA), and applicant manipulativeness.
Generally, they found that IM is helpful and a no-fluff resume and simple cover letter is not a smart approach for job applicants. This is a relief. Imagine if we were all wasting our time pondering which adjective best describes our work ethic?
For OFIA, the only tactic that was ineffective was the combination of higher intensity self-promotion and no ingratiation. You can’t just say you’re wonderful and not talk about how you want the job and are suitable for it. This finding will strike many as common sense, but it is good to see actual data for it. The researchers note that it’s “consistent with the notion that self-promotion tactics are not uniformly successful and may lose their effectiveness if overdone.”
For manipulativeness – the level of IM that makes it seem like you’re trying to pull one over on the organisation – the researchers’ findings were “more difficult to interpret”. They found that higher intensity self-promotion combined with no ingratiation (I’m wonderful, I don’t have anything to say about you) increased perceptions of manipulativeness. They also found that lower intensity self-promotion combined with ingratiation (I’m pretty good, I’d love to work with you) resulted in the same increase. But higher intensity self-promotion combined with ingratiation (I’m wonderful, I’d love to work with you) did not show an increase over the control.
The researchers say further work is needed to clarify the relationship between manipulativeness and IM, and note that their study has some weaknesses (all research does).
But, to inappropriately draw findings where the researchers didn’t, I’d venture that it kind of makes sense. If an applicant is very enthusiastic about themselves and the organisation, they fit the category of someone who is just an overall enthusiastic person. Someone who is measured about themselves but enthusiastic about the organisation (which they know less about) can come across like someone with an agenda.
Of course, if this is true, it’s a blow for those who don’t like the language of relentless positivity.
Want a job? IM me
The research touches on other interesting ideas. For example, there is an interaction between a job post and people’s tactics. If you say you’re looking for someone with “excellent communication skills” don’t be surprised if people use that exact language.
But what’s the overall lesson HR should take away from the study?
Well, resume and cover letter screening is often the first stage of recruitment, a lot rides on it – for organisations and candidates. This means it’s very much worth thinking about the effect of IM. Perhaps it’s something you might even want to discourage, to prevent decisions being made on something that can be so flimsy. The researchers have advice on that front.
“Organisations might reduce the use of IM tactics by omitting job posting content that emphasizes being impressive (e.g., removing descriptions of applicant qualifications that include words such as ‘excellent’ or ‘ideal’), and including content that emphasizes the importance of being credible (e.g., a statement within job postings that indicates that resume content will be verified prior to inviting applicants for interviews).”
But, until that day where we figure out the exact effect of IM, recruiters can take solace in the fact that cover letters which say things like “I am the most creative, most passionate, most hard workingest human alive – and the only thing better than me is you and your company” aren’t going anywhere.
Did I say take solace? I meant that thing where you roll your eyes so much that you actually pass out. Pretty sure that isn’t solace.