As the recruitment function automates, the place of the cover letter is up in the air.
Platforms are screening resumes and applications for keywords; AI-powered interview bots are asking initial questions and tech is quickly ranking applications and funneling them into inboxes. In today's time-critical recruitment process, the argument could be made that a cover letter slows screening time, forcing recruiters to read though yet another document as they search for the right applicant. But, written correctly, they may also offer a quick synopsis of the candidate's qualifications and experience, as well as some insight into their personality and goals.
Are cover letters over? Or are they changing like so many other aspects of recruiting are these days?
The state of cover letters
According to Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster, the cover letter isn't dead yet; "Hiring managers will still ask for them. Not all, but many," she told HR Dive in an email.
But for Ally Van Deuren, university relations lead at Korn Ferry, they're too time consuming. "I personally rarely look at cover letters," she said in an email. "The average recruiter spends an average of [seven] seconds per resume, so honing a resume is more important!"
Many companies no longer require cover letters, Paul Lesser, head of talent acquisition at Fidelity Investments, told HR Dive, but added: "We are redefining how we attract top talent with diverse skills and perspectives, and a cover letter can help a prospective employee showcase unique thoughts or experiences that may set them apart from other applicants." In many cases, he said in an email, cover letters are not necessary; for most of Fidelity's roles, the company doesn't require them.
Save time or delve deep?
With so much pressure on recruiters to speed time to hire, some have wondered whether reading cover letters is time well spent. But Lesser suggested cover letters can aid in the review process when evaluating the applicant's details. "For instance," he said, "if an applicant understands an agile work style is important for the position they are applying for and has experience on that front that doesn't shine through on their resume, the cover letter is an excellent place to highlight it."
Salemi believes cover letters don't slow the hiring process: "Even though it takes more time, it's not a time-consuming endeavor to review and can help employers assess the candidates that standout." A good cover letter may be what separates the great candidates from the good ones. If well-written and succinct, cover letters can supply relevant information about candidate capabilities tied directly to what the company needs.
"Think of the cover letter as your elevator pitch," writes Salemi. "If you took a yellow highlighter and marked up only a few spectacular things on your resume, what would you showcase?" A well written cover letter offers these bullet points to illustrate how the candidate matches with the requirements of the position.
If there isn't an exact match, Van Deuren said, the cover letter could help reveal a candidate who didn't appear to be an exact fit but one who may be worthy of further insight. It could offer a better understanding of the individual's interest, too.
A cover letter can be a good place to capture strengths and skills that don't traditionally come through on a resume, Lesser said. "Cover letters can also be helpful when an individual is looking to shift their career in a new direction," he said, "as it provides the real estate to explain your transferable skills or why you're interested in making a move, which may not be obvious from your resume."
Using a cover letter for first impressions
For those candidates offering a cover letter, it should be tailored to the company and position. For example, Fidelity employees contribute thousands of hours of community service annually and share their skills to make an impact. These are often things that are not highlighted on a resume, Lesser said, and could be called out in a cover letter, if the applicant is passionate about serving the community.
Van Deuren agrees they must be tailored to the company and the opening. "If they are generic, it implies the candidate was careless about their application," she said. Less is more with cover letter. "Very rarely will someone have bandwidth to read an entire page so as a candidate, I think focusing on your resume and a short but strong cover letter/note is the way to go."
Cover letters can communicate more than just their main message. For recruiters, a lengthy, repetitive cover letter could be a red flag the applicant doesn't have the right written communication skills for a role, Lesser said. Candidates should identify the top skills needed for the role and highlight their matching capabilities in the letter, he added. When screening a cover letter, recruiters can identify whether the candidate honed in on the most important qualifications or was trying to make a fit where there really wasn't one.
Of course, as with resumes, a flawless cover letter speaks volumes. Anything less can reflect on sloppy work or lack of focus. For recruiters who require cover letters, or those who receive them unsolicited, a quick look may provide additional insight. They may even prompt an interview that wouldn't have been set without one.