Time to Retire the Unnecessary Cover Letter

What is it with online recipes? All readers want is to jump straight to the ingredients and cooking instructions, yet most of the time we have to scroll through hundreds of words of unnecessary backstory from the author before we get to the content that matters.

What are cover letters good for?

Let’s start by dunking some of the arguments in favor of cover letters.

1. Providing an introduction:

Firstly, the cover letter helps make a job application seem less transactional. People hesitate to simply upload a resumé without what is essentially a modern-day letter of introduction.

But with the scale and speed of modern recruitment, hiring organizations don’t need to be “eased in” to a job application. Like the busy chef trying to find an online recipe, all they really want is to get to the information that matters as fast as possible.

2. Attention-getting

The internet is full of advice on how to get an employer’s attention with a cover letter that stands out. From whacky formatting to provocative opening sentences, candidates use cover letters as the job-seeking equivalent of one of those inflatable tube guys you see outside car dealerships. 

But hiring organizations know that shortlisting must be based on suitability for the role and ability to do the job. With this in mind, the best way to get someone’s attention (whether they’re human or AI) is to ensure your resumé shows that you’re an excellent match in terms of the things that matter: experience, qualifications, and achievements.     

3. Demonstrating writing ability

Advocates of cover letters often say they’re essential for assessing a candidate’s written communication skills. Can they write clearly and concisely? Do they ramble? Are there any grammar or spelling errors?

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, there are so many cover-letter resources available online, from free templates to paid services and even AI-powered cover letter builders, that you simply cannot trust that a cover letter is a true representation of a candidate’s writing ability.

More importantly, this is not a standardized way of comparing candidates’ communication skills. Employers should level the playing field by using a skills assessment to put everyone through exactly the same test and enable a fair comparison.

4. Showing enthusiasm and passion for the company and role

Do employers really need to be reassured by every candidate that they’re enthusiastic and passionate about the role? In most cases, we’d be much better off taking this as a given and assessing someone’s enthusiasm further down the recruitment funnel at the interview stage.

On a similar note, candidates are often told that cover letters are an opportunity to let one’s personality shine through. It’s true that a traditionally structured resumé won’t provide a chance to do so, but (again), employers should save the personality/psychometric assessment for later in the recruitment process with a shortlisted group of candidates.

You have 7.4 seconds

Common knowledge tells us that recruiters – particularly in high-volume situations – barely glance at a resumé before making a decision. This was confirmed in 2018 with an eye-tracking study from Ladders, Inc that found the initial screening time is no longer than 7.4 seconds.

The study recommends avoiding the temptation to cram too much information into the resumé and advocates for simple layouts, bold subheads, and bulleted lists of accomplishments. The cover letter isn’t mentioned at all.

In other words, every one of those seven-point-something seconds will be dedicated to rapidly assessing the resumé, with no time to spare for any sort of preamble.

AI screening

Then there’s the AI factor. While recruitment AI continues to get smarter, the reality is that the scan is essentially a keyword search. Robots won’t be moved by a candidate’s attention-getting opening line or inspirational personal story. Their only job is to look for keywords from the job listing and decide if your application should proceed to the next stage. Some may also be programmed to search for spelling and grammar errors, cliches, or buzzwords.

Given that most resumés contain a list of hard and soft skills, employers would be better served by directing AI to ignore cover letters completely to avoid duplicating tasks or inadvertently screening out a good candidate who omitted a keyword.

Ditch the cover letter and concentrate on the resumé

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Perhaps there are some hiring managers out there (particularly in low-volume situations) with the time to make a cup of tea, lean back in their chair and carefully peruse a 400-word cover letter. This letter could be the deciding factor in terms of shortlisting or even hiring a candidate. If so, good luck to them.

But the trend is going in the other direction. Recruitment involves higher volumes, shorter times, more automation and AI, and more rigor in terms of standardized assessments. Cover letters are increasingly becoming obsolete in this reality, where candidates would be much better off directing their energy into perfecting a concise resumé that ticks every box and will get the application through to the next round.