Think fixing our cover letter problem is impossible? Think again!
Updated: Apr 21
I hate cover letters and you probably do too. As job candidates we hate writing them and as hiring managers we mostly do not read them. As a relic of the 1950s, it seems like cover letters could be eliminated as a requirement from the majority of hiring processes with almost no negative impacts. Yet, we just can’t seem to quit cover letters – even in age of easily customizable resumes, online applications and LinkedIn profiles.
So, why do cover letters still exist in 2022?
Well, there is still a sizable group of hiring managers who want candidates to submit cover letters and a smaller, but passionate, group of hiring managers who will actually read them. Sometimes those hiring managers even remember to tell candidates to submit cover letters instead of just expecting them and then being disappointed when candidates don’t provide them. This is important to note because more candidates than ever are simply choosing not to apply for jobs that require covers letters as part of the application process.
When a candidate finds a job that they’re interested in and it requires a cover letter, that leaves many of them stressing out over just what to write. Luckily, there are about a million experts who can tell you what to write to best position yourself to provide a one-page document to accompany your two-page resume.
But there is a huge problem with all that well-intentioned advice: No two hiring managers seem to really value the same things from cover letters.
Here's a summary of the conversations I've seen on LinkedIn:
Some hiring managers want you to provide a brief, concise explanation of why you want the job. Keep it short and simple!
Some want you to be serious and all business. Just the facts!
Some want you to go over specific skills. Be thorough!
Some treat the letter itself as a writing assessment. No typos allowed!
Some want case study examples of past work successes. “How can you help solve my business challenges?”
Some want you to be funny and witty. Show your personality!
Good luck figuring out what your potential boss will want. We need a better way.
How hiring managers can help
I see two roads hiring managers can take to make this situation better.
Stop requiring cover letters! This is what I recommend; however, it is not going to happen soon.
Tell candidates exactly what you want their cover letters to address and stop making it a mind-reading exercise.
I know what you’re thinking. Telling people what you want. Well, that just sounds too simple and practical! Stay with me. Here is four step plan for how you can make it happen.
Take the time to come up with three to five specific questions that you want all your job applicants to address.
Provide a maximum word count for each answer. I suggest no more than 150 words for each question.
Put those questions in your job posting.
Actually read the letters if you ask for them!
On that last point, if you don’t find yourself doing that it’s time to think about taking the first step I proposed – you know, stop requiring cover letters.
Why this matters so much
Applying for jobs is a stressful period filled with ambiguity and wasted time for candidates. Providing specific guidance for what you want to see in a cover letter helps make everything better.
This strategy also helps make it more likely that the cover letter you receive was written by the actual candidate and represents something they put some actual thought and effort into.
It’s a win-win for everyone.
Hiring managers, let’s embrace our role in fixing this problem!
Bonus content: What does this mean?
I came across this statement in an article recently.
“Even if a hiring manager doesn’t read your cover letter, writing one will still help you stand out from other candidates.”
This feels like philosophical test.
“If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?”