Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is your Cover Letter an Ineffective and Obsolete Tradition?

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 well over a thousand HR Managers, recruiters, and Hiring Managers. I’ve interviewed the top brass at the largest job boards, and I’ve interviewed Managers and VPs of 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?

Executives exploring Career Change: For a free 30 minute resume consultation, or career advice for executives, email your resume confidentially to reCareered (, and we'll schedule a time to talk.

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Related Articles:
Stop Writing Cover Letters and You’ll Get MORE Interviews
3 Things Your Next Employer Will Search For

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Candace said...

I do want to say that I took your quiz for job seekers and there wasn't an option for those who customize cover letters and resumes; only customize cover letters and send static resumes. So you may be harping on most people not customizing their resumes when they actually do.

I also think this is more complex than you are making it out to be. A cover letter is probably useless when applying online. Yet when the resume is emailed, are you suggesting job seekers to just send a resume without any content in the email? In my job search, even some large companies employing 500+ have asked for resumes to be emailed.

Phil Rosenberg said...

Candace, Thanks for your comments. The purpose of the poll was to determine how many candidates customize their resume. Only a small percentage do.

You'd find that hiring managers, recruiters, and HR reps agree that they make decisions based on resumes, not cover letters.

If you are sending via email, a one line transmittal is fine. Just make sure that the resume can stand on it's own - which means customize it. Recruiters have an old saying, "If it's not on the resume, it doesn't exist."