In the face of high-volume recruitment practices and parsing software, the conventional cover letter looks positively archaic. Are they really necessary?
Once the dynamic duo of job applications, the CV and cover letter are having an identity crisis.
Nearly two-thirds of recruiters say cover letters are not an important factor when they review applications, according to a recent survey. It’s demise can be attributed to three major players in today’s job market: the speed, technology and volume of recruitment practices these days.
A majority of companies, especially medium- to large-sized ones, recruit online and receive applications through software systems designed to screen candidates and ‘thin the herd’. Rather than taking a resume as a whole, these programs search and parse applications, looking for particular keywords or phrases.
Add to this the sheer volume and scale of the candidate search – where one job opening might attract hundreds of applications – and it becomes clear there is no quick or efficient way to do each cover letter justice.
While many have declared the cover letter dead, there are some who argue it still has value. The topic started a debate on AHRI’s LinkedIn group page, with members weighing in on when you should use a cover letter in the recruitment process, and when your time is better spent elsewhere.
Burden of proof
In the past few years, more human resource professionals, hiring managers and recruiters have declared cover letters persona non grata.
Many who were in favour of doing away with the cover letter said so because it’s bulky and time consuming. “There are only so many ways you can say what you can do, what you’ve experienced and what you’re good at on your resume,” says Karen Rodriguez. “I think this makes cover letters obsolete.”
A recruiter rarely spends more than a minute on a resume when screening candidates, points out Rob Hutchison. And Sheryl Grimwood says it’s unlikely that she would read a cover letter, as it’s subjective; she would rather rely on the resume to demonstrate skills match, and the interview to show the candidate’s attitude and capabilities. Mark Bradley agreed, and says it’s easy for people to make a cover letter “say almost anything.”
The cover letter is where candidates can expand on their skills and qualifications, but some contributors pointed out that not everyone knows how to make the most of this opportunity. “The idea of a cover letter is good, but I fear the whole point is lost on many applicants who don’t know how to sell themselves properly,” says Neil Phillips. “They tend to use multiple superlatives and thus spoil their application.”
Right time, right place
Other points of view were that it depends entirely on the role and how far along the candidate is in the selection process. Many said that although they initially rely on resumes to get the meat of a candidate’s experience and skills, a great cover letter can be what seals the deal later on.
“I have often used them as a last criteria when two or more resumes are similar,” says Khadeja Sattar. “The one with the better cover letter will get my attention first.”
“I think they’re important, but too often applicants submit generic cover letters or cover letters that are for different positions,” adds Taryn Bennett. “It helps screen out those candidates who have done their research and demonstrated attention to detail.”
Many respondents to the discussion focused on how cover letters can be a showcase for good and persuasive writing.
“A key criteria for many roles is well-developed or excellent written and verbal communication skills,” says Dianne Southouse. “A cover letter is an opportunity for the applicant to demonstrate this, and for the employer to assess and gain some insight into the applicant.”
Perhaps this question of whether cover letters are still relevant or not actually plays into a larger debate about human resources as a profession. As one contributor Marcus Champ put it: “Both the question and many of the responses reflect why the debate about the relevancy and value of human resources continues. It should not matter what you believe or like. It should only matter on what basis a cover letter contributes to a selection process and how valid it is as a tool.”
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below, or contribute to the discussion on AHRI’s LinkedIn page here.
Comments have been edited for publishing.