Google “how to write a cover letter,” and among the many how-to templates you’ll find in the search results are comment threads from job applicants, frustrated that few hiring managers read their letters. It’s time for Cover Letters 2.0.
The Cover Letter Catch-22: Both Companies and Candidates Lose
Cover letters have long been a standard part of the application process, summarizing career accomplishments and making a compelling pitch for why a candidate is the ideal fit for this company and this position. Where a resume is a series of skimmable bullet points, a cover letter should make a memorable impression and offer insight into the type of employee the candidate would be– taking initiative, collaborating with the team, and thinking creatively to solve any challenge. Historically, cover letters also served another purpose: they offered companies a snapshot of the candidate’s ability to write professionally and communicate in a business setting.
Unfortunately, most hiring managers don’t have the time to review hundreds of cover letters. Candidates know this, and to save time on applications, they’re likely to paste in a few generic phrases, add the right company’s name, and then hit send. Candidates who do spend time crafting a thoughtful letter tailored to the position are frustrated when they receive an automatic form response, and it’s clear no one read what they wrote. The entire candidate experience declines, which can hurt applicant quality.
The current cover letter process is broken: candidates know the odds of their letter being read are slim to none, and companies aren’t getting the true insights they need into a candidate’s potential. There’s a better way.
The Future of Cover Letters: Time-Sensitive Solutions for Real Candidate Insights
I’ve recently recommended that my clients discontinue upfront cover letter requirements and replace this with a more thoughtful approach to learning about candidates. Here’s what’s working for my clients, and what could work for your business, too:
Make ATS do the work for you.
Nearly every company uses an ATS system to manage at least some part of their application process. Why not leverage this automation to gain the insights your hiring team needs? Eliminate the upfront cover letter requirement, which would only be “read” by your AI software. Instead, once ATS has completed a pre-screening and categorized applicants, have the system automatically email three questions to the top tier. These questions could ask about skill set and experience, pose a hypothetical project challenge and ask for a solution, or ask the candidate to explain their preferred work style or company culture. Receiving this email tells applicants they’re moving forward in your process, and they’re more likely to invest time and effort into their answers.
Request a formal letter of interest after the interview.
Many candidates already turn their thank you notes into mini letters of interest, summarizing why they feel they would be a good fit for the position. I’m encouraging companies to skip upfront cover letters and request them after the first round of interviews. These letters can replace the longer thank you notes, and allows candidates to reflect on why they feel they’d be a good fit now that they’ve met some of the team and had a chance to discuss the position in greater detail.
Focus on potential, not the past. When I present candidates to a client, I send a short write-up highlighting the candidate’s skills, what skills/experiences are missing, and how/why I believe they can overcome what’s missing. There is no “perfect” candidate who will check every box, so this approach is honest and realistic. I’m assessing candidates for future potential, rather than evaluating them solely on past performance. Companies can apply a similar approach to their cover letter requests, asking the candidate to assess how they will perform at the job, what challenges they expect to face, and what skills/experiences they hope to gain on the job.
By eliminating cover letters as an upfront application requirement and moving them later in the process, your company and your candidates will come out ahead. The candidate experience improves significantly: applicants feel that their time is valued, they’re more invested in the interview process, and your business will attract a higher caliber of professionals. You’ll receive more thoughtful, well-written answers that offer true insight into how a candidate thinks and would perform at your company. These are the type of insights that are essential to making smart hiring decisions and ensuring you have the right talent for today and tomorrow.